In the town of Albion, new residents and young people who have just reached voting age usually drop by the town clerk’s office to register to vote.
But this year, the town’s part-time clerk, Julie Hanewall, has received about 30 registration applications by mail, and more are arriving almost every day.
The strange thing is, the applications weren’t mailed in by town residents. They were sent by people who live in Madison and other Dane County communities. Hanewall forwards the papers to the correct municipal clerk, but she worries that as Election Day grows closer, some may not arrive on time.
“I feel sorry for these people who are being misled,” Hanewall said.
The source of the misdirected applications is the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
Municipal clerks and others who have seen the mailings wonder if it’s part of an effort to suppress the vote in the predominantly Democratic Madison area, but the state agency in charge of elections says it’s part of a long-term pattern of mistakes by the state GOP and other groups trying to get out the vote.
“These types of mailers get sent out all the time before elections, and it is not uncommon for them to contain errors,” said Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney.
“These fall under the scope of mistakes that we see election after election from this group and other groups,” Magney said. “I know we’ve talked to them in the past.”
The glossy, tri-fold mailers surround the forms with partisan political messages. It’s legal for anyone to print copies of the forms and distribute them this way, Magney said.
Organizations across the political spectrum send them out. Often they are printed with addresses of the wrong clerk, Magney said, although he hasn’t seen any from the state Democratic Party this year.
“Our advice to voters is not to use these,” Magney said.
Go to the GAB website — myvote.wi.gov — to see if you are registered and how to contact your municipal clerk, who can register you and also provide an absentee ballot if desired, Magney said.
‘Accidental list mistakes’
State Republican Party spokesman Nathan Conrad said he couldn’t explain why there were more reports of errors by his organization than by the state Democratic Party.
“Unfortunately, no list is ever perfect, and while these circumstances are without a doubt unfortunate, we are working diligently to make sure that accidental list mistakes do not occur in the future,” Conrad said in an email response to questions from the State Journal.
The mailers include registration forms, but not the page of instructions that is supposed to be on the back of it. The instructions include a list of the types of proof of residence that must be provided by first-time Wisconsin voters.
The omission means some people will show up at the polls unregistered, and then need to scramble to provide proof of residence, said Dane County Clerk Karen Peters, who contacted the GAB to complain.
“Some of these people are going to fall through the cracks and not be able to vote,” Peters said.
A fall tradition
In 2008 and 2010, the city of Madison was flooded with hundreds of the state GOP’s incorrectly addressed registration and absentee ballot application forms from people all over the state, said City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl.
“Whenever there’s a November election we see it,” Witzel-Behl said. “It was really overwhelming in 2008.”
At the busiest time of the year for the clerk’s office, staff had the additional task of mailing the errant forms to the correct clerk, Witzel-Behl said.
Last week an absentee ballot form — pre-printed with the address of the Verona clerk — was sent by the state GOP to Madison resident Jean Phelps, who happens to work in the city clerk’s office. Phelps lived in Verona last year, but has voted as a Madison resident in five elections since moving into the city.
“It is disturbing, and I definitely think it leads to people’s mistrust in the process,” Phelps said.
Deb Bergen, admissions and social work director at Attic Angel Place senior citizen home said three residents came to her after getting incorrectly addressed forms. She helped them register correctly in Madison.
“I actually thought (the Republicans) were targeting voters of the opposite party so they wouldn’t be able to vote,” Bergen said.
Voters have questioned clerks about why they allow the forms sent out with political messages, and why they are wasting taxpayer dollars sending the forms to people who are already registered, Peters said.
“People need to know none of this would ever come from us,” Peters said.