Early Voting UW-GB

Christine Knorr of Madison fills out her ballot for the Nov. 8 general election while taking advantage of the first day of in-person early voting during a visit to the Madison Central Library last month.

JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL

Green Bay’s city clerk asked state officials if she could rebuff a request to put an early voting site on the UW-Green Bay campus because, in her words, “students lean more toward the democrats,” a newly released email shows.

The email, first reported Tuesday by The Nation Magazine, was from Green Bay City Clerk Kris Teske, an appointee of the city’s mayor, Jim Schmitt.

Schmitt describes himself as nonpartisan. He was considered for a post in Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s Cabinet, and records show he contributed to the campaigns of Republican lawmakers.

The report is likely to stoke the controversy surrounding early voting in Wisconsin after a federal judge in July overturned GOP-enacted restrictions on the practice. It also may fuel charges from Wisconsin Democrats that Walker and other Republicans have tried to make it more difficult to vote, especially among demographic groups that tend to support Democrats.

“It is troubling to see that... trickle down from our state politics to a nonpartisan office,” state Rep. Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay, told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Schmitt’s office responded Tuesday by saying “media allegations that the City Clerk is attempting to curtail Democratic voting for this election are completely false.” The statement says the email from Teske to the state Elections Commission simply shows her asking how to interpret a state law that requires impartiality in deciding where polling places are located.

Schmitt’s chief of staff, Celestine Jeffreys, told the State Journal that Teske felt it was important to consider voting access for all Green Bay voters, not just college students.

“Kris’ concern is for everyone,” Jeffreys said.

The Aug. 26 email from Teske went to an attorney for the state Elections Commission, and was obtained through a records request by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now — a plaintiff in the court challenge to early voting.

In the email, Teske says a state lawmaker “is being very persistent” about having an early voting location at UW-Green Bay.

Genrich told the State Journal he approached Green Bay city officials in August, shortly after the federal court ruling, about establishing a second early voting location at UW-Green Bay in addition to the current early voting site at the city clerk’s office. The court ruling opened the door for clerks to establish satellite locations for voting early, or in-person absentee, outside of a clerk’s office.

The request was motivated in part by long lines and confusion that occurred on campus during voting in the April primary, Genrich said.

He said student groups from across the political spectrum, including Republicans and Libertarians, supported the move.

In the email, Teske writes that “I don’t like the idea at all for many reasons: Staffing, ballot security, budget, etc.”

She then asks if it’s possible to justify rejecting the request due to a state law barring voting sites from being located where they give an advantage to any political party.

“I have heard it said that students lean more toward the democrats,” Teske writes in the email. “Do I have an argument about it being more of a benefit to the democrats?”

Nathan Judnic, legal counsel for the commission, responded to Teske with an email saying she could deny the request but should “decide what is feasible and serves the needs of the city and its voters.”

Judnic wrote: “As far as stating that one political party may be advantaged more because of a particular location, I might be hesitant to make that argument unless you could point to something other than ‘I’ve heard that students lean more democratic.’”

Judnic also noted that the city has an Election Day voting location on the UW-Green Bay campus.

“There is no ‘political advantage’ then, I’m not sure what the difference is for (early) voting at that same location?” Judnic wrote.

Ultimately, the request was denied. However, since the federal court ruling eased early voting restrictions, voting locations have been opened at college campuses in Madison, including at UW-Madison and Edgewood College.

Early voting is not the only controversy to dog Schmitt’s administration in recent days. The mayor is expected to plead guilty Dec. 5 to three criminal campaign finance charges, the Press-Gazette reported earlier this month.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.