By Brendan Fischer on July 17, 2012

Law enforcement has found no evidence of "voter fraud" in the election that gave Wisconsin Democrats control of the state senate, despite right-wing media and legislators hyping the allegations to cast doubt on the only Wisconsin recall election won by a Democrat this year. The state elections board has also condemned "unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud" by Wisconsin Republican leaders.

Sen. Van WanggaardAfter a month-long investigation, the Racine County Sheriff's and District Attorney's offices announced they will be filing no charges in four separate complaints of "voter fraud" in the Racine area. Wisconsin's elections board has also announced that they found no electoral wrongdoing, noting that Republican leaders making "continued, unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud tend to unnecessarily undermine the confidence that voters have in election officials and the results of the election."

The now-discredited voter fraud complaints arose after John Lehman (D) prevailed over incumbent Sen. Van Wanggaard (R) in a June 5 recall election. These claims were hyped by the right-wing MacIver Institute and repeated by outlets like the Wall Street Journal.

GOP leaders and right-wing media also stoked fears of statewide voter fraud across the state prior to June 5. But post-election, they only claimed voter fraud had happened in the one district where a Republican had lost.

In the days after the race was called for Lehman, the MacIver Institute was running stories claiming there were "curious election documents found in dumpster" outside of a polling place in Wanggaard's district, and that poll workers in the district did not follow same-day registration procedures, and that ballot bags had been tampered with, among other allegations.

After the recount confirmed Lehman's victory, Assembly Republican leaders Jeff Fitzgerald, Robin Vos, and others sent a letter to Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board (GAB) repeating the allegations and claiming "there are serious questions regarding the integrity of our election process" and complaining about the "recall election that made a mockery of our election system."

"Unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud"

GAB Director Kevin Kennedy pushed back on those claims in a July 13 response to Fitzgerald, pointing out that, in fact, it is the "continued, unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud [that] tend to unnecessarily undermine the confidence that voters have in election officials and the results of the election."

"I hope that, as an elected official, you would also agree that there is little benefit in promoting unsupported allegations questioning the credibility of the election process and the work of local clerks and election inspectors," Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy also responded directly to the allegations of election fraud promoted by right-wing media and repeated by GOP legislators. The GAB's investigation found that there was no evidence of ballot bag tampering (some bags were re-opened by election officials for legitimate reasons and re-sealed in a new bag, and the recount results matched the results of the voting equipment tapes from election night). Although some new voters did not sign the supplemental poll books and some voters registered with improper proof of residency, these errors were on the part of poll workers, and state law does not call for disenfranchising voters as a result.

"We would certainly expect protests from both voters and candidates if ballots were randomly invalidated due to an election official's error," Kennedy wrote. "Much like the failure of election officials to require a voter to sign the poll book, the failure of election inspectors to require proper proof of residence is very different than a voter intentionally procuring registration under false pretenses." He also found that some allegations were premised on misunderstanding Wisconsin election law.

No Basis for Criminal Charges

The Racine County District Attorney's Office and the Racine County Sheriff's Office also found that the right-wing fraud allegations were unsubstantiated.

"A thorough inquiry was made into the somewhat limited information that was provided," a July 13 statement read. "Some of the information that was provided was anecdotal, as opposed to first-hand, eyewitness accounts. Based on the information that was received, it was determined that said information did not rise to the level required for a criminal prosecution."

The Racine County DA and Sheriff said that "[m]uch of what was reported as fraud was more appropriately categorized as rule violations" under the jurisdiction of the GAB, which the GAB investigated and replied to in its July 13 letter.

MacIver responded to the GAB letter with an article titled "GAB Resents Expressed Concerns Over Elections Law Violations in Racine" where it downplays how the GAB largely discredited the vote fraud allegations they had been hyping for months.

Republican leaders also did not back down in response to the GAB's findings, vowing to come back next session "to correct the problems that have been discovered and restore the integrity of our election process."

Selective Vote Fraud Hysteria

Prior to the June 5 election, GOP leaders, including Governor Walker and Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, had been actively fueling fears of voter fraud across the state (despite Wisconsin having no history of election fraud).

But after Walker and three Republican senators survived their recall elections, there were no further allegations of statewide voter fraud or claims of election irregularities in districts where Republican legislators kept their seats.

Right-wing media and legislators only claimed voter fraud had happened in the one district where a Republican had lost.

Wanggaard, who lost his June 5 election by a margin beyond what would be expected to change by recounting votes, had also raised the spectre of voter fraud to justify his request for a recount.

"In the absence of a voter ID law and so many people suspicious of the election result, bitterness and division will only grow if the results are not recounted," he said in a June 15 press release. Rep. Robin Vos seconded Wanggaard's assertions, telling Milwaukee TV host Mike Gousha that "Unfortunately, a portion of [Lehman's victory in Racine] was fraud." Asked Gousha, "You can say that with certainty?" "I can, a portion," replied Vos, adding, "you have to have some sort of ID in my mind. I think that was another thing that led to the potential for fraud."

Election results were largely unchanged after the recount was completed.

In March, a Wisconsin judge struck down the state's new voter ID restriction as imposing unconstitutional burdens on the right to vote. Vos, the state co-chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the state, spearheaded the effort to pass the bill in 2011, which reflects key elements of the ALEC "model" Voter ID Act.

Although Wisconsin's GAB and Racine's DA and Sheriff found that the alleged election irregularities in Racine were either unsubstantiated or attributable to poll worker error, even if they all had been true, none would have been prevented by requiring photo ID at the polls.

Brendan Fischer

Brendan Fischer is CMD's General Counsel. He graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School.