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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008

Will the November Election Be a Fair Election?

Questions surround involvement of law enforcement and party poli

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Wisconsin voters are expected to turn out in unprecedented numbers for the Nov. 4 election. And that has created some concern about the integrity of such a high-stakes election in a state that has had razor-thin winning margins in recent presidential elections.

To allay those fears, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office has set up an Election Fraud Task Force to investigate and potentially charge criminal acts that relate to the election. Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf, who has taken the lead on the task force, said that most complaints likely would include false voter registrations, political activity at polling places, or perhaps some glitches in the processing of voters at election sites. The task force must also deal with voter intimidation that tries to prevent legal voters from exercising their rights. “We expect we’re going to get complaints like what we’ve gotten in the past, and we’re going to be prepared to respond to those,” Landgraf said.

The task force will set up a hotline—935- 1234—to take complaints just prior to or on Election Day, and investigators from either the district attorney’s office or the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) will determine whether they should be pursued. Before that date, complaints can be filed by calling the district attorney’s public integrity unit at 278-4645.

Landgraf said that the task force is a natural extension of the district attorney’s office’s response to election irregularities since 2005.

One critical difference this year, however, is the inclusion of the state Department of Justice (DOJ) in the task force. Landgraf said the DOJ’s role is supplementary and necessary because of the expected record turnout on Nov. 4.

In addition, Landgraf said he’s been training other Milwaukee County municipalities’ law enforcement officials to handle election-related allegations, even though the MPD is the only local police department officially included in the task force.

On Tuesday, Wisconsin’s two federal districts announced that they would have federal prosecutors oversee elections violations in the state.

How Serious Are the Potential Violations?

This heavy emphasis on law enforcement in the upcoming election has drawn criticism from those who believe that Wisconsin—and Milwaukee in particular— generally run crime-free, if sometimes messy, elections.

Indeed, after the close 2004 presidential election, investigations were launched to look into allegations of fraud in polling places—a story line that the daily paper and the state Republican Party were happy to push, encouraged by the Bush administration’s focus on supposed “voter fraud” in heavily Democratic areas of the country. Republicans contended that restrictive voting registration rules and voter ID would combat “voter fraud,” while Democrats argued that those measures would lead to voter suppression in Democratic-leaning areas.

Resulting investigations—including the one conducted by Republican U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic—found that there was no “widespread voter fraud” in Milwaukee. There were clerical errors and a handful of isolated incidents involving felons who illegally voted.

Those incidents were also reported outside of the city, proving that Milwaukee isn’t a hotbed of so-called voter fraud.

Even the specific allegations of “voter fraud” don’t always appear to be as serious when they’re investigated. “We occasionally will get complaints regarding stolen votes, when someone will say their name [at the polling place] and the poll worker will say, ‘You already voted,’” Landgraf said. “That happens. Our experience has been that we are best advised to look into that. We would contact people who might be one or two names above or below that name. They frequently will confirm that they have voted, but their name does not have a number after it in the poll book.”

To many observers, the task force’s focus on Milwaukee reinforces the perception that when voting irregularities occur in Milwaukee, they're considered malicious or coordinated acts, while irregularities that occur in suburbs or small towns are deemed to be simple mistakes.

“When there are incidents of data errors here, they are looked at as criminal,” said Henry Hamilton III of the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP. “Elsewhere, they are explained away as human error.”

Laurence Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said a recent conviction of a double-voter in Brookfield proves that voting irregularities occur outside of the city. What’s more, he said, some voters in Oconomowoc have routinely voted in the incorrect ward, which has likely affected the outcome of races in that area. “This is not something that is limited to Milwaukee, or even predominantly in Milwaukee as far as anyone can tell,” Dupuis said.

Another target of law enforcement’s attention is the activity of special registration deputies who signed up new voters in recent months—most specifically, ACORN and the Community Voters Project employees. Both of those organizations ended their activities in the area before the Sept. 9 partisan primaries as required by law. The task force has reviewed a number of complaints about bogus voter registration forms turned in by special registration deputies, but only three people have been charged with crimes relating to them.

All of the individuals charged were actually referred to the Milwaukee Election Commission by the organizations that employed them. The commission sent them on to the district attorney’s office. These organizations are not allowed to destroy or toss forms that seem suspect. The possibility that these few suspect registrations could turn into fraud at the polls is highly improbable because the “voters” that appear on the registration forms do not exist.

But while alleged double-voting generates attention, routine disenfranchisement of eligible voters is overlooked. Hamilton of the NAACP said he was more concerned about eligible voters being flagged at the polls because their names appear on sloppy Department of Corrections-generated lists of felons who are ineligible to vote in the state. “This should be investigated by the task force,” Hamilton said.

Politicizing the Act of Voting

Although the alleged voting irregularities seem to be made up of isolated, minor incidents, they’re highly politically charged and therefore useful to some of the candidates. In addition to the partisan tug of war over voter IDs and registration, overblown charges of “voter fraud” raise suspicions about the legitimacy of an election—especially useful for the losing candidate, who can blame his or her loss on “fraud” and not on an unpopular message or a poorly run campaign.

Unfortunately, though, in this year’s election the seemingly unbiased law enforcement entities are also suspected by some of having partisan biases.

That was most visibly raised when state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen filed a lawsuit against the Government Accountability Board requiring additional checks on the new state voter database. The case had been pushed by the state Republican Party, and Van Hollen—the state’s most prominent Republican and a co-chair of the John McCain campaign in Wisconsin—revived the case when the GOP’s attempt failed. Later, it was revealed that Van Hollen’s Department of Justice had been in contact with Republican Party lawyers before filing suit, and even Van Hollen himself discussed it with Wisconsin delegates at the Republican National Convention. The attorney general’s office is required to be above partisan politics when dealing with election laws.

Just days after filing suit, the Milwaukee County Election Fraud Task Force was announced, and the DOJ’s involvement, not surprisingly, raised eyebrows.

Kevin St. John, spokesman for the DOJ, said there’s nothing unusual about the DOJ’s role in Milwaukee County’s election task force, even though his office does not have similar roles in Wisconsin’s other 71 counties. Milwaukee County is the most populous—and a solidly Democratic—county in the state, and is estimated to have tens of thousands of new voters this year.

St. John said the DOJ’s involvement was warranted in Milwaukee because of the report created by the MPD’s Special Investigations Unit detailing allegations of voter fraud in the November 2004 election. “That report indicated a number of instances where maybe you wouldn’t have what it would take to bring a criminal charge, which has an extraordinarily high burden of proof, but where there were election irregularities,” St. John said.

But that MPD report—which was leaked to the media earlier this year, not officially released by MPD Chief Edward Flynn—did not turn up voting irregularities overlooked by other investigations. It did go one step further by advocating for legislative changes that could depress voting in the city—ending Election Day voter registration and requiring a photo ID at the polls. These two policy changes have long been advocated by the Republican Party.

The MPD did not respond to requests for comment for this article, so it is not known if the officers involved in drafting and releasing the report will be involved in the task force.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

Correction: In the Oct. 16 article “Serving the Garden,” the Unitarian Universalist Church West was incorrectly identified as Brookfield Unitarian, along with the number of its members, which is 450. We regret the error.