A Wisconsin Tea Party group recently announced that it had found errors on more than a third of the same-day voter registration forms completed in Milwaukee County in the April 2011 election.
I am so not surprised.
On presidential election day in November 2004, I was a Republican poll watcher in Milwaukee. My experience was a complete and utter nightmare, largely due to same-day voter registration.
As previously related in Polling Place Chaos: Part 1 — Chicago, I am not an election law rookie. I’m a Chicago native, home of “vote early and often,” dead people voting, and other outright voter fraud. In Illinois, I was a Republican precinct election judge, until it looked like I might get arrested or disbarred from practicing law, as I relate in Part 1.
But my experience in Milwaukee was much worse.
I was recruited to work there by Leonard Leo, then on leave from the Federalist Society to the Bush campaign. Leo was in charge of Wisconsin in 2004, and I was a longtime Federalist Society member, so of course I volunteered.
Poll watching was a very serious effort because Wisconsin was an important state for Bush. All of us volunteers were rigorously trained in every detail of Wisconsin election law, with particular emphasis on the requirements for same-day voter registration.
On the night before election day, I drove down to Milwaukee, about 90 miles south of where I live. The next morning at about six a.m., I arrived, as directed, at Bush headquarters. There, I was assigned to a partner, and we drove together to the first of our two assigned polling places.
It was in an elementary school gymnasium, spacious and well-functioning, we thought. But there, Republican workers told us tires had been slashed earlier on 20 of their vans while they were parked overnight downtown, intended to transport voters to the polls on election day. That, of course, was not happening.
Much later, we learned the son of a Democratic congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee), and three other young men had done most of the tire slashing. Eventually, they were found guilty and got serious jail time for it.
But we didn’t know that then. That day, we knew only that our job was to do the best we could to ensure voter fraud didn’t take place on our watch. And the gym looked fine.
So on we went to the second polling place. It was in the field house – actually more of a field room – in a public park. Voters from two precincts were assigned to vote in that one single room.
As we arrived, we looked around the neighborhood. It seemed to consist primarily of “starter” homes being renovated. It looked like a before-and-after ad for Home Depot. Voters looked to be a mix in every possible demographic way: by age, race, gender, income.
By then, it was about 10 a.m. Things looked orderly.
But not for long.
By noon, the lines had formed outside for more than a block. It was cold and rainy, so rather than waiting for voters to emerge, those in line just kept coming in through the door. Soon the field-room was wall-to-wall with people.
My partner and I were just supposed to watch for election irregularities. But it soon became evident one huge problem was the combined precincts. So my partner started directing traffic at the front door, sending voters to the tables to the left or the right, depending on where they lived. I stationed myself at the election judges’ table.
It wasn’t long until we were approached by people complaining they had been barred from voting by the election judges. These were mostly same-day registrants.
The requirements are not simple. A person who has never registered to vote before election day may vote that very day if they present one of the following forms of identification with a current, valid Wisconsin address:
- a current, valid Wisconsin driver’s license
- a current Wisconsin id card
- a photo id issued by a Wisconsin university, college, or technical institution
- a work i.d.
- a residential lease, a tax bill, or a bill for cable television, gas, electric, telephone or other utility service for the period ten days before the election.
- a bank statement, a current paycheck, or some other (unspecified) document issued by a unit of government for the period ten days before the election.
Some voters had the required documents; some did not. The big problem arose if the voter had moved into the precinct ten days or less prior to election day. A utility bill in their name at an address in the precinct was enough to qualify them to vote. But that, in turn, qualified that voter to vouch for another voter, even one lacking any documentation at all.
So as the complaints of disenfranchisement multiplied, my partner and I began hovering around the tables where voters were checking in and trying to vote. Immediately, it was evident the official election judges were ill-trained. They had no idea of how to qualify same-day registrants. Since Milwaukee is a Democratic bastion, I feared they would be hostile to help from Republican poll watchers. Instead, they were pathetically grateful for help from my partner and me, because we obviously knew the law. And, more often than not, we were saying voters with the right paperwork could legally vote, contradicting the election judges.
So I tried to keep a clear head and follow the law. That was the most important thing, though I was ruefully thinking at the time I was enabling voters for the Democratic nominee, U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts). But, I thought, my job was to follow the law, regardless of the outcome.
I was shocked when it turned out the precincts went 60-40 for Bush. God works in mysterious ways.
But here’s the thing. The chaos in that field-room polling place went on all day long. Unlike Chicago, where the chaos was only in the early morning.
Voters who were qualified on the basis of a cable television bill could and did vote and then vouch for numerous other voters – supposedly their “neighbors” and thus qualified Wisconsin residents entitled to vote.
But who knew if this was true? There was no possible way to know. And no way to detect anything afterwards; once a vote was cast, it was anonymous and went in the ballot box, mixed in with hundreds of others. And the voters – legal or illegal – disappeared without a trace.
One woman approached me late in the day. She said she had been denied a ballot because polling place records showed she had already voted. She showed me an array of identification cards. She clearly had not voted earlier, but there was nothing anyone could do.
After the polls closed, I went to Bush headquarters and swore out an affidavit about this incident. Nothing ever happened. Bush had enough votes in other states to carry the election, so the Bush forces conceded Wisconsin.
But as it later turned out, Kerry won Wisconsin that year by only 11,000 votes. At least 4,500 more votes were cast than the number of registered voters in Milwaukee, according to a four-year voter fraud investigation by the Milwaukee Police Department. It found most of the fraudulent votes involved same-day registration by unqualified voters.
Thus, the Tea Party group’s report about fraudulent same-day registrants is probably correct.
Effective this year, Wisconsin has enacted a photo i.d. law. That law will help but not much. A drivers license, even if it shows the wrong address, is enough, along with a utility bill with the right address. A passport, even if it shows an out-of-state address, plus the utility bill, also is enough.
The real problem is same-day voter registration. It ought to be eliminated. Those wishing to vote ought to be given the opportunity to register for up to ten days before the election. But not after that.
It’s the only way to ensure honest elections in Wisconsin.