Election observers face more restrictions this year


By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — The same election commission that banned a 78-year-old poll monitor from observing next month’s election is pushing a policy that would keep election observers farther away from voters.

In a letter obtained by Wisconsin Reporter, the City of Milwaukee Election Commission receives guidance from the city attorney on how to comply with a provision in a new state law involving election observers.

Wisconsin Act 177, which into effect in April, allows the chief election inspector or municipal clerk to restrict the viewing area of poll observers to an area “not less than three feet nor more than 8 feet from the table at which electors announce their names and addresses to be issued a voting number a polling place …”

Before the revised law, there was no specific designation of distance involving observers. That was left up to local election officials.

SPACE CONSTRAINTS: A new state law creates a 5-foot variance in the distance limits of election observers, and some cities like Milwaukee are looking at going to the outer limits of the space requirement.

The law was crafted in part because of entities such as the Milwaukee Election Commission, which, before the specific distance parameters, kept election observers between six feet and 12 feet away, depending on the space available at the individual polling place.

Poll watchers complained that, at 12 feet, observation became impossible.

With the changes in place, the Democrat-heavy commission appears to be looking at erring on the far side of the law — backed by the city attorney’s guidance.

The “Election Commission may restrict the location of election observers from between six to eight feet,” City Attorney Grant Langley and two of his assistant wrote in the letter, dated May 1, to Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.

“We believe that this would adequately allow observers to fully observe the election process while at the same time maintaining confidential elector information,” Langley wrote

That’s the balance that must be struck, election officials say — the citizens’ right to observe the integrity of elections against the voter’s right to privacy.

Campaign and election law expert Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, said the rule is “ridiculous.”

“Poll watchers operate under very strict rules. They know they can only observe, but they have a right to see everything going on, including watching election officials check the voter names on a voting list,” said von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

“Any rule that keeps an observer so far away that they are unable to properly observe is not just improper, it’s wrong. It negates the whole purpose of having poll watchers of both parties there, so they can make sure election officials are doing everything according to law.”

Negating the work of poll observers might just be the intention, according to Marguerite Ingold, the long-time Republican election observer in Democrat-dense Milwaukee who has been banned from monitoring next month’s elections in the city. The 78-year-old grandmother’s apparent crime? She raised concerns about campaign and election violations at a Milwaukee nursing home where city-employed special voting deputies were helping residents vote.

Albrecht, in a letter banning Ingold, claimed the volunteer observer was being disruptive, a charge Ingold denies. Albrecht, according to Ingold, told the elderly woman he took the step to block her from the polls because he thought Ingold might have become violent and stormed City Hall.

She said she believes the Milwaukee Election Commission’s harsh and unusual punishment is all about intimidation. Others see the broader distance rule about control.

Poll observers expressed their concerns about the distance requirements at last month’s state Government Accountability Board meeting.

Susan McGuire, an election overseer in Ozaukee County, told the board that observers should be able to be close enough to be able to see and hear the conversations between special voter deputies and voters in care facilities, for instance.

“By eliminating the ability to hear, the observer cannot be sure an SVD is reading the ballot exactly as written (required under law), or marking the voter’s ballot as requested, and they may not be sure whether the SVD is telling the voter who to vote for,” McGuire said. “Transparency and honest elections are paramount.”

Wendy Fjelsted, an election observer from Cottage Grove, said she has seen a number of election law violations at the Dane County nursing homes where she has observed the absentee voting process. Election assistants have told voters which candidates were incumbents, they have intentionally misread the ballots, asked whether a voter wanted to vote straight ballot, or have given information about the candidate, conduct that is strictly prohibited under election law

The GAB on Friday sent a letter to organizations that sponsor election observers summarizing the rules, as the agency sees it, within the confines of the new law.

Noting the law’s provision establishing that observers must be three to eight feet from the electors check-in table and the voter registration area, the GAB letter reiterated that the observation areas must be situated to “enable observers to observe all public aspects of the voting process without disrupting the voting process.”

And the agency weighed in on the side of privacy in holding the line on observation at nursing homes or adult-care facilities.

“The observation area … must not be located to permit an observer to hear conversations between a voter and an individual providing assistance to the voter,” wrote Michael Haas, elections division administrator in the letter. “Please note that voters have a constitutional right to a private ballot, and observers must not be permitted close enough to a voter to hear how an elector instructs an assistor to mark their ballot.”

Voter integrity has come a long way since the early 1980s, when clerks merely mailed nursing homes ballots and had employees assist residents with voting. But some observers say the limitations on hearing the interaction between election deputies and voters are making poll monitoring moot.

The GAB in July upheld a previous ban on election observers using cameras to grab video and pictures of voters at polling places.

Von Spakovsky said voters who demand integrity in their elections shouldn’t put up with such distance restrictions.

“They ought to raise hell with their local election board and, frankly, they ought to raise hell with the state, too,” the elections expert said.