An out-of-state Tea Party organization recently called a "GOP front group" by a Texas judge is again intervening in Wisconsin's recall election and perpetuating unfounded fears of "voter fraud," a spectre also raised by right-wing media, Governor Scott Walker, and most recently, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair Reince Priebus.
With polls showing the recall election between Walker and his challenger Tom Barrett tightening to a dead heat (49-49 in a recent survey by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake), Republicans have been invoking fears of "voter fraud" to cast doubt on a potential Barrett victory, despite repeated investigations finding no evidence of in-person electoral wrongdoing.
On May 30, RNC Chair Reince Priebus alleged rampant voter fraud and claimed Republican candidates "need to do a point or two better than where we think we need to be, to overcome it." Governor Walker made a nearly identical claim weeks earlier, telling the Weekly Standard that fraudulent votes account for "one or two points" in Wisconsin elections. "That's enough to change the outcome of the election," the Weekly Standard's Steve Hayes noted.
Purportedly to combat unsubstantiated claims of "voter fraud," the Texas-based "True the Vote" is coordinating with a variety of Wisconsin-based Tea Party groups to train poll watchers. True the Vote, a spinoff of the Texas-based Tea Party group the King Street Patriots, held election observer trainings across Wisconsin on May 19 with trainers flown-in from Houston, and an online training session on May 29. In the past, True the Vote's poll-watching tactics have prompted accusations of voter suppression.
Stoking Unfounded Fears of Voter Fraud
"Just to know that across Wisconsin ordinary citizens will be trained in proper poll observing gives me hope that those who seek to 'win at all costs' will have reason to give such illegal actions a second thought," said Kim Simac, president of the Northwoods Patriots, one of the Wisconsin-based Tea Party groups involved in the effort.
GOP operatives and right-wing media outlets have long stoked unsubstantiated fears of "voter fraud," but in Wisconsin, the fear-mongering has just kicked into overdrive.
Five of the top ten latest stories on the right-wing MacIver Institute website suggest early voting is proof of leftist wrongdoing, including a story raising questions of fraud by high school students who "use class schedules to prove residency." Breitbart's Big Government wrote on May 27 "expect unions to pull out every stop over the next ten days" and warns of the "Left Mobilizing Massive Vote Effort in Wisconsin."
Right-wing talk show host Charlie Sykes of WTMJ Milwaukee declared: "If this election turns out to be neck-and-neck; if it turns out to be decided, let's say Tom Barrett were to win this election by, say, 7,000 votes, I can tell you right now: There is not a single conservative, not a single Republican in the state of Wisconsin that would think that was a legitimate election, that it was not stolen... if you had the photo ID, people wouldn't have been happy about it, but at least they would have realized the legitimacy of that election." A Wisconsin court recently declared that the state's new voter ID restrictions placed an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote.
Sykes and other right-wing outlets appear to be taking their cues from Governor Scott Walker, who told the Weekly Standard last month that "there's no question why they went to court and fought [to undo] voter ID," and claimed fraudulent votes account for "one or two points" in Wisconsin elections. RNC Chair Priebus repeated that claim on May 30, also alleging vote fraud makes "a point or two" difference in Wisconsin elections (when asked about Priebus' statements, Walker said "I don't have any reason to agree or disagree" and "I don't know what percentage to predict," despite having predicted the exact same percentage as Priebus just a few weeks before).
Vote Fraud a Myth
"I'm always concerned about voter fraud," said Priebus. "I think it's been documented."
It has not. A year-long, in-depth investigation into the 2008 election in twelve Wisconsin counties by the the state's Republican Attorney General netted just 20 charges -- mostly for former felons who did not know they could vote in the state, and only two for committing the in-person fraud that requiring identification is intended to prevent. Slate's Dave Weigel points out that for Walker to be correct about fraud equaling "one or two points" in recent elections -- where 3 million people cast ballots -- there would need to have been between 30,000 and 60,000 fraudulent ballots.
While "voter fraud" has been shown to have no impact on election outcomes in Wisconsin, requiring identification at the polls can make a statistically significant difference. According to testimony in the recent court decision striking down Wisconsin's voter ID law as unconstitutional, over 220,000 people in the state currently lack the identification required under the legislation. Many of those who lack the specific kind of ID that would be required are people of color, the elderly, and students -- populations that tend to vote for Democrats. Similar provisions to make it harder for Americans to vote have been enacted in another states since the 2008 elections, after the American Legislative Exchange Council approved voter ID restrictions as "model" legislation to push in states across the country. ALEC-inspired voting restrictions have been exposed by the Center for Media and Democracy and challenged by civil rights and good government groups, and even by the U.S. Department of Justice.
With Wisconsin's voter ID law on hold for the recall election (pending an appeal by the Walker administration), these traditional Democratic constituencies will have fewer burdens to participating in their democracy.
Unless True the Vote and Wisconsin Tea Partiers impose new burdens.
True the Vote's History of Voter Suppression
The True the Vote and Tea Party poll watching effort is allegedly organized to thwart "illegal actions" at polling places, apparently because Wisconsin's voter ID law was struck down as unconstitutional. But in the past, True the Vote's poll watching efforts have reportedly had an impact to similar to the ID laws -- suppressing votes by Democratic constituencies.
In the 2010 election, True the Vote reportedly recruited thousands of volunteers to patrol Harris County, Texas polling places for "fraud and other problems at the polls." While the volunteers were unable to find any hard evidence of intentional voter fraud, they did draw accusations of voter intimidation from election officials, with volunteers "hovering" behind people as they cast their ballot, "getting into election worker's faces," and blocking or disrupting lines of voters. The incidents, which were described as "systematic and organized," occurred in minority districts and were directed at African-Americans and Latinos.
After those elections, the Civil Rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the group and its voter intimidation efforts.
Also in 2010, the Texas Democratic Party filed a complaint alleging that True the Vote's poll watching and other activities amounted to an in-kind donation to the state's Republican Party, in violation of the state's ban on corporate contributions and the group's charitable 501(c)(3) status. In April, a Texas judge ruled against True the Vote, calling them a GOP front group, not a nonprofit.
Special Voting Issues for Students
While the voter ID law will not be in effect for the Wisconsin recall election, newly-enacted rules requiring a voter reside at their current address at least 28 days will pose special burdens for the hundreds of thousands of university students in the state. The school year ended in mid-May, and dorm leases ended May 20, so students moving back with their parents for summer or subletting a summer apartment may not be able to establish 28 days of residency before June 5.
Past reports suggest True the Vote has traditionally focused on voters of color, but Wisconsin's new laws could present an opportunity for some to try to harass Americans who are college students and want to exercise their right to vote.
"Verify the Recall" Hysteria Did Not Stand Up to Scrutiny
The Texas-based True the Vote first intervened in Wisconsin politics earlier this year when it worked with Wisconsin Tea Party groups on the so-called "Verify the Recall" project, which aimed to uncover "duplicate signatures, questionable practices, and downright fraud in the gubernatorial recall effort."
The groups recruited volunteers from around the country to enter the Wisconsin recall petitions into a massive online database, then released "findings" alleging hundreds of thousands of the signatures were invalid -- but as the Center for Media and Democracy reported, the group's claims did not stand up to even limited scrutiny. They sought to discount around 280,000 signatures because of data entry errors on the part of "Verify the Recall" volunteers or because petition signers made simple errors like writing their city in the "street address" section, none of which would make the signatures ineligible under Wisconsin law. The "Verify the Recall" groups would have approved just 584,000 signatures as "eligible," far fewer than the 930,000 actually certified by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB).
Despite "Verify the Recall's" erroneous findings, the Walker campaign sought to incorporate their claims to challenge the recall petitions, rather than use his considerable campaign war chest to conduct an independent review. The GAB rejected Walker's petition.
True the Vote said their "involvement in the petition review [was] simply to help uphold the integrity of the process." But as CMD noted at the time, their misleading assertions, inaccurate data, and dishonest framing did little more than undermine and cast doubt on the process they claimed to uphold.
The Texas-based group is making similarly pious claims about its involvement in poll watching for Wisconsin's recall elections. "All we are doing is encouraging people to take a pro-active role in upholding the integrity of their elections, and in this case, restoring faith in our election process," said True the Vote's founder and president Catherine Engelbrecht in a May 18 press release.
But with no evidence of voter fraud in Wisconsin, and True the Vote's history of alleged voter suppression tactics, their "pro-active role" may hurt the integrity of Wisconsin elections more than it helps. Still, the alarmist discussion of voter fraud from True the Vote, right-wing media, and top GOP officials is useful to cast doubt on the outcome of the June 5 elections if Tom Barrett were to win. Their focus on discrediting election results could suggest the GOP is concerned about internal and public tracking polls showing the race tightening.