Wisconsin could see a record number of votes cast in Tuesday’s high-stakes election — and have more citizen scrutiny of the balloting than ever before.
Tea Party groups, the two presidential campaigns and several other organizations claim to have trained thousands of lawyers and ordinary citizens to spend the day at polling places looking for irregularities — and keeping an eye on each other.
Stoking interest is the state’s crucial role in the seesaw presidential and U.S Senate elections this year, on top of white-hot passions that have built during a series of Wisconsin recalls.
To prevent a repeat of chaotic conditions caused by observers in 2004 and complaints about disruptive poll-watchers in the June recall election, the state’s election agency has reaffirmed restrictions on observers, ramped up training for election workers and for the first time trained local police on their duty to arrest troublemakers.
“Some of the observers felt they needed to try to intimidate our workers or the voters, and that just won’t be tolerated this time,” said Diane Hermann-Brown, past president and current communications chairwoman for the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association. “Badgering isn’t going to be an option. There won’t be any third or fourth chances. You’re going to deal with it, or you are out.”
Conservatives have complained the Government Accountability Board has placed too many restrictions on where observers can stand, and who they can question, but election agency director Kevin Kennedy said a proper balance has been struck between the rights of observers, the privacy of voters and the need to keep lines moving when turnout is heavy.
“We can’t control the passion, and we can’t control people’s perceptions,” Kennedy said. “The law is clear — law enforcement should remove disruptive persons from voting places.”
Only a few observers cause problems, Kennedy said, while others want to offer help to voters but end up slowing down the lines and possibly giving out incorrect information.
“There’s this paranoia on both sides and we’re kind of caught in the crossfire,” Kennedy said.
Observers generally need to stay 6 feet away from poll workers and they are allowed to raise questions only with supervisors, Kennedy said.
“We’ve really spent a lot of time training poll workers to do their jobs properly so that they can address the increased level of scrutiny that was coming,” Kennedy said.
Several groups have challenged the agency, but its board of retired judges reasserted the rules a few weeks ago.
Kenosha area land developer Dan Hunt said he has trained about 125 observers this year. He works closely with the Tea Party group American Majority Action and was a leader in the unsuccessful 2011 recall drive against State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie.
“The GAB has become more restrictive, and it’s interesting that they’ve done this as we’ve become more of a presence,” he said. “Why we are such a threat, I have no idea.”
Hunt said he wants only to ensure that the process works properly, and that he’s seen things that suggest breakdowns in security — such as ballots left temporarily unsecured — but no proof of fraud.
Observers for the major parties often check off names of voters as they go through the polls, so that the campaigns can make reminder calls to those who haven’t voted. But it’s other activities that are more likely to cause problems.
Typically, Republican and Tea Party groups prime their volunteers to look for signs of fraudulent voting, while Democrats and a few watchdog organizations guard against people wrongly being denied a ballot, said UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden.
In the past, most observers in Madison have monitored student and low-income wards, but city clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said she expects the watchers to be present at every city ward this year.
Witzel-Behl is suggesting that poll workers tape off an area where observers must stay to keep them out of the way. Sometimes the worst problems have taken place after the voting is over and the observers try to interfere with counting write-in ballots, reconciling poll books or completing a log of incidents, Witzel-Behl said.
State election officials have contracted with Burden and a few other professors to examine incident logs compiled after each election by polling place supervisors.
The work isn’t done, but an initial review indicates few if any problems with voter fraud or voter access — even though rumors of those things continue to spread, Burden said.
“The parties want to get their voters activated,” Burden said. “A prime way to do that is to scare them, to use a threat.”
Many will watch
The Texas-based Tea Party group True The Vote claims that “thousands” of Wisconsin observers have undergone online training this year. The Obama campaign in the state said it had 1,000, mostly lawyers, ready to go. The Romney campaign declined to say how many watchers it will deploy. Wisconsin Election Protection Coalition, which is working with the League of Women Voters and the charitable arms of several unions, said it would field about 500 observers. There are other groups.
Training of observers became an issue last week, with the Obama campaign criticizing portions of Romney training manuals that the GAB said included incomplete and incorrect information. Ben Sparks, a Romney spokesman in Wisconsin said the campaign stood by the manuals, but wouldn’t provide a copy and wouldn’t address questions about why volunteers are advised to list their organizational affiliation as “concerned citizens” when they signed in at the polls.
Ann Jacobs, a coordinator for Election Protection, said the move allows Republicans to avoid being removed if a polling place is overcrowded and equal numbers from each major party are made to leave. Members of Election Protection wear T-shirts with the group’s name and phone number.