Wisconsin Republicans give dubious training to poll watchers

October 30, 2012

Democrats and Republicans are training legions of poll watchers to scrutinize voting next week for signs of fraud. But some information trainees are getting is not quite on target.

The liberal blog ThinkProgress opened a window onto the process Tuesday when it reported on material distributed to aspiring poll watchers by the Romney campaign and the Republican Party of Wisconsin in Racine Oct. 25, at one of a series of training sessions held across the state this fall.

Pronouncing Election Day observers "the first line of defense" against illegal voting, the primer gives trainees some questionable or conflicting advice. At one point, for example, it says that convicted felons are ineligible to vote in Wisconsin. Not exactly true, according to Reid Magney, spokesman for the state's Government Accountability Board, which administers elections. Felons who are out prison and have completed probation can vote, he said.

"Once you have completed the terms of your sentence your voting rights are restored in Wisconsin," Magney said. A few pages later, it mentions that felons who have not had civil rights restored can be challenged at the polls.

The materials cautioned observers not to assist voters, even though the law says voters can ask for help from anyone. Trainees are also encouraged not to disclose their affiliation with Romney and Republicans, and to sign in at polls as a "concerned citizen." ThinkProgress said the omission was designed "to deceive election workers and the public about who they are associated with," although Magney said there is not much that can be done about it.

"We're not carding people," he said. "How do you know if someone is with what party?" But, he added: "We would hope that people would accurately represent who they are with."

The material also provides an abbreviated list of identification that voters can use to prove residency, glossing over such alternatives as Medicare and Social Security notices, hunting licenses, correspondence from federally recognized Native American tribes in the state and an affidavit from a homeless shelter. (It does say at the bottom of the list "check or other document issued by a unit of government.")

Romney officials responded Tuesday, trashing the ThinkProgress piece: "It's obvious Democrats are losing when they start peddling the same tired and false attacks they use every election cycle," said spokesman Ryan Williams. "Our campaign is seeking open and fair elections where every legal vote counts and desperate claims otherwise are offensive and wrong." The packet does say that the campaign and party "do not and will not tolerate any voter intimidation or suppression," and that no one "should
interfere with any individual's right to legally cast a vote."

The story prompted a letter from Obama campaign attorney Robert Bauer to Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. "These acts of willful misrepresentation to individuals sent to polling locations to enforce the law raise serious concerns under Wisconsin law," Bauer wrote. He added that this was not an isolated matter, citing the Wisconsin activities of True the Vote, "an organization close to the Republican Party and the Romney campaign."

ThinkProgress did swing and miss on one point. It initially accused Republicans of inaccurately stating that Wisconsin residents would be asked for photo ID at the polls. While voters don't need photo ID to receive a ballot in Wisconsin--the requirement was set aside by the courts for this election -- it can be used as proof of residency for registering on Election Day, along with other non-photo documents. The blog updated the story later in the day.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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Ann Gerhart | October 30, 2012