Ballot box bullies
Citizens fight back to protect their right to vote

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Jay Kohn, of Morristown, N.J., holds a sign during an NAACP voter ID rally on Sept. 13 in Philadelphia. - PHOTO: Michael Perez/AP

A third of voters may go to sleep on the eve of the general election with Hitchcockian visions of hanging chads and boxes of uncounted ballots in their heads.

Two swing state polls, one conducted in late September and another in early October, found 33 percent of voters seriously concerned about electoral shenanigans – not on the part of people ineligible to vote but on the part of those steering campaigns, supplying voting machines, issuing ballots and tallying votes.

But there’s a counter to the compromised confidence: A growing number of citizens are taking an interest in safeguarding voting rights at the polls, promoting transparency in the process and protecting the integrity of the electoral system. Surveys find more people volunteering to serve as election observers, increased interest in the process and a spike in the number of voting rights marches this year, especially in the South.

“Voting must be free, fair and accessible to all, and voters should know their rights,” said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, a national organization at the forefront of fighting for fair and free elections. “It is important to maintain the integrity of our election system, and that means that candidates, parties and political activists should be focused on persuading and turning out voters, not bullying them or trying to manipulate the law to freeze them out of our democracy.”

Suppression

With days left to go before Nov. 6, concerns about voter suppression, intimidation and disenfranchisement existed around the country, but especially in the swing states. 

Intimidating billboards declaring “Voter Fraud Is A Felony!” went up in low-income and minority communities in Milwaukee. 

Those billboards and others like them in Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, were funded by Wisconsin venture capitalist Stephen Einhorn and his wife Nancy. The couple has given over $50,000 to Gov. Scott Walker since 2005, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Following protests from community groups condemning them as voter-suppression efforts, Clear Channel Outdoor company took them down. The company also announced it would work with the Milwaukee Election Commission to post digital bulletins, digital posters and transit shelter totems encouraging voters by saying, “Skip the Election Day line – vote early.”

Voters in some Democratic areas in Wisconsin received mailers from the Republican Party with incorrect information about their polling places or the wrong election date.

Controversy also arose over the appearance in Wisconsin of GOP strategist Nathan Sproul’s Issue Advocacy Partners firm. Another Sproul firm is connected to a voter fraud scandal in Florida, as well as an ongoing criminal case against a paid voter registration supervisor accused of destroying forms in Virginia.

In 28 Florida counties in October, voters received bogus letters informing them they might be ineligible to vote, prompting an FBI probe. And in Palm Beach County, some 27,000 absentee ballots couldn’t be digitally scanned because of a design flaw. So election workers were duplicating the markings on bad ballots on new ballots.

This was in addition to the yearlong campaign by Republican Gov. Rick Scott to remove people from registered voter lists, an effort to reduce early voting opportunities, new rules that pushed citizens groups out of registration drives and a scandal over fraudulent voter registration forms in 10 counties that involved a contractor hired by the GOP.

In Ohio – in minority neighborhoods in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland – a right-wing family foundation erected billboards intended to scare off voters with the warning, “Voter Fraud Is A Felony!” Clear Channel, co-owned by the private equity firm co-founded by Mitt Romney, agreed to remove the ads, but civic leaders said some harm was done.

Meanwhile, liberal bloggers were raising questions about whether ballots in at least one county in Ohio would be accurately counted because investors in Hart InterCivic, the company supplying voting machines, have ties to Bain Capital and Tagg Romney.

All this was in addition to a failed attempt to reduce early voting opportunities in a state where thousands of people were left waiting in lines hours after the polls closed in 2004 and where officials this fall sent out notices to some voters with an incorrect election date.

Elsewhere, confusion over voter identification policies continued after a spate of new voter ID laws, driven by another right-wing group, led to showdowns between state governments and the U.S. Justice Department. In Pennsylvania, where a photo ID isn’t needed to vote Nov. 6, the state ran a campaign – posters, mailings and TV ads – saying otherwise.

There were reports of other problems with early balloting to aggravate anxiety.

In Maryland, some absentee ballots were mailed missing the page that included Question 6, the marriage equality question, and voters who received Spanish-language ballots complained that the summary for the marriage question contained an error that could lead people to vote opposite their intention.

In Texas, the state attorney general threatened to arrest observers with an international group invited to monitor the election if they came within 100 feet of polling places.

Watching in Waukesha

Concerns about the next election were being raised as questions about prior elections remain, specifically in Waukesha County, where County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus has been challenged by good government groups, urged to resign by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and investigated by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.

Nickolaus came to national attention in April 2011 after she failed to include Brookfield results – 14,315 votes – in the totals reported on election night. That contributed to a recount in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race between conservative Justice David Prosser and liberal challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg. Nickolaus’ discovery was convenient for Prosser, who was declared the winner, costly for taxpayers and highly controversial.

The GAB, after a four-day canvas, stated, “Although there were some anomalies identified, the GAB found no major discrepancies between Waukesha County’s official canvas report and the documentation provided by the municipalities. This does not warrant correction of the canvass absent any post-election proceedings.”

In September, after a more extensive review, the GAB said it found probable cause to believe Nickolaus violated state law requiring clerks to post all returns on election night, but the violation was not willful and did not constitute criminal misconduct.

The GAB chair wrote to Nickolaus: “When one election official fails to act consistent with those responsibilities, steps must be taken to correct the failure in order to prevent it from recurring, and to restore public confidence and trust in the administration of elections.”

Fair election advocates have focused on the clerk again.

In the April presidential primary, because of computer problems, Nickolaus’ office manually entered vote totals by hand, proofed them against machine tapes and posted unofficial results online – at about 2 a.m. the day after the election.

Soon after, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headlined an editorial “Waukesha County clerk needs to step down. Upcoming elections – from the gubernatorial recall to the presidential – are too important to leave in the hands of Kathy Nickolaus.”

The newspaper also reported that Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas said he would call for Nickolaus’ resignation unless she handed off her election duties in the upcoming recalls to her deputy. According to the newspaper and a news release from the GAB in April, Nickolaus agreed to delegate vote-tallying duties to deputy Kelly Yaeger in the upcoming recalls.

But, for the May 8 recall primaries, Nickolaus was in the office on election night and several media outlets reported she appeared to be in charge.

That, and conflicting statements from county officials, led to concerns about who would be in charge of collecting and counting the June 5 gubernatorial recall ballots. On recall day, Kelly Steele of the activist group We Are Wisconsin, said, “Vrakas promised the voters of Wisconsin he’d taken care of his ‘Kathy Nickolaus problem’ so that the stench of incompetence and possible corruption emanating from Waukesha County was a thing of the past. Alarmingly, as we tabulate the most important election in Wisconsin history, Kathy Nickolaus remains firmly planted in the heart of Scott Walker’s base and Dan Vrakas has not only failed to keep his word, he’s now stonewalling questions about who’s actually running the election in Waukesha County.”

Controversy continued through the summer, with Nickolaus, according to watchdog groups such as Liberty Tree’s Wisconsin Wave project, putting up barriers to a hand count of the June 5 ballots, part of a statewide citizen audit effort. In mid-August, she threatened to destroy the ballots.

Vrakas’ office returned press calls regarding Nickolaus’ role on Nov. 6. Nickolaus, in an email, said, “I have no comment. Thank you.”

At the GAB, public information officer Reid Magney stated, “We continue to work with the Waukesha County Clerk’s office. There were no problems in the August partisan primary, and we do not expect any in November.”

He added, “Questions about responsibilities in the Waukesha County Clerk’s office should be directed to that office or the county executive’s office.”

Waukesha County Corporation Counsel Thomas P. Farley said state law provides Nickolaus’ authority and mandates her responsibilities. “Statutorily, she has to do what she has been elected to do,” he said, adding that he was unaware of how her office would run on Nov. 6.

If Nickolaus does run that show, it will be her last. She announced in April she would not seek re-election and on Nov. 6 voters will elect either Republican Kathleen Novack or Democrat Jessie Read, whose campaign slogan is “HINT: Honesty, Integrity, Nonpartisanship, Transparency.”

Protecting the vote

Several groups plan to monitor Wisconsin’s vote.

“We have a major election observer program,” said Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Network. “We’ve been recruiting and training volunteers from all over the state. This is the fourth time we’ve done this in a fairly big way. …With this kind of election observer program, Wisconsin is out front.”

For the June recall election, the league fielded 150 observers at 110 polling places. On Nov. 6, it will dispatch at least 300 volunteers trained to observe and primed on state election law. They’ll be looking to see whether the polls operate on schedule, equipment is operational, voting is private, check-in and registration tables are separate and that eligible voters aren’t being turned away due to confusion over the law. 

Observers take any concerns to a chief inspector at the polling place and, if necessary, the league headquarters or attorneys. “We assess the situation,” Kaminski said, noting that observers don’t interact with voters. By state law, observers must stand at least 6-12 feet from any voter casting a ballot.

Common Cause also is watchdogging the election. In addition to fielding poll monitors, the organization has lobbied for the removal of the voter fraud billboards, called for an investigation of alleged intimidation in Florida and campaigned to extend early voting hours in Ohio. 

“The entire voting rights community is mobilized to protect voters’ rights,” Edgar said.

Meanwhile, legal groups, including the ACLU of Wisconsin, are working hotlines on Election Day to help voters with concerns and questions.

After Nov. 6, expect the watchdog work to continue, along with efforts to reform the election system and increase voter participation.

In its September newsletter, the Wisconsin Wave project said, “We will also again be putting out the call for nationwide voter assemblies on Nov. 7 – the day after the election, gatherings that will serve as instant organizing platforms if there is evidence that the fall election was stolen.”

On Election Day

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Election Protection coalition is part of the 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) hotline. Volunteers and attorneys answer calls from voters.