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Wisconsin Republicans have long pushed unsuccessfully for a photo identification requirement at the polls, citing the need to guard against voter fraud.
So it was not a surprise when the incoming Senate majority leader, Republican Scott Fitzgerald, told reporters a photo ID bill would be the first introduced in 2011. But a recent Fitzgerald statement in defense of photo ID, made to a Green Bay journalist, was an eyebrow raiser.
A Green Bay Press-Gazette editorial on Dec. 9, 2010 quoted Fitzgerald saying: "We continue to see these isolated incidents of people trying to vote five, six times a day; people voting based on some sort of fraudulent documentation that's offered…People think it's important they have open, good, solid, free elections."
Fitzgerald’s allegation that people are voting up five or six times in one election is one we have not heard before.
Is that really going on?
We turned to Fitzgerald’s office, where spokesman Andrew Welhouse couldn’t cite a specific case. Instead, he said there might be cases in other states. But those cases, an anonymous allegation in Oregon and a claim in Alabama, have not been proved.
As for Wisconsin, Welhouse mentioned the episode in the 2000 presidential election when a Marquette University student claimed he voted four times. But he said Fitzgerald was not necessarily referring to that -- though he offered that it’s the "strongest case."
Finally, Welhouse referenced a Milwaukee Police Department report on the 2004 elections in the city of Milwaukee -- an election plagued by vote-count discrepancies, documented by the Journal Sentinel, and allegations of voter-registration fraud.
Let’s pause for some context.
Wisconsin’s system, which does not require voter ID and allows same-day registration, is one of the most open in the country. Supporters say this helps Wisconsin consistently rank among the states with the highest voter turnout. Critics say that leaves the system more vulnerable to fraud.
Republicans have pushed photo ID as a solution, but Democrats say its overkill and could discourage voting. We are not analyzing that argument here.
Additionally, law enforcement officials say cases of fraud are easier to establish than to prosecute. That is, they may identify suspicious cases, but not be able to determine who was responsible. Thus, measures based on how many cases of fraud are ultimately prosecuted, or lead to convictions, give only a partial picture of what may be happening.
Conversely, investigators emphasize that in many cases where documents show an irregularity, the problem turns out not to be multiple voting but routine recording errors by clerks.
This item is not aimed at establishing how much or how little fraud there is. Rather, it is looking strictly at Fitzgerald’s statement about people who attempt to vote five or six times.
Let’s look first at the 2000 incident involving the MU student, since Fitzgerald is hanging his hat mostly on that -- to the degree he has evidence to hang his hat on.
The episode, which drew national media attention, started on campus after scores of students responding to a Marquette Tribune survey claimed they had voted at least twice. One student’s name emerged: Rob Bosworth, 18, told reporters for the Journal Sentinel that he voted four times at the same polling place in Milwaukee.
But Bosworth’s claims did not hold up when examined by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
And after a five-week investigation, the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office found no evidence supporting it. Bosworth, who had gained national publicity, later recanted his story.
The DA’s inquiry examined voting records for hundreds of MU students and found no double voting. McCann concluded that the student survey had drawn "apparently unfounded, spoof responses."
No one was charged.
Another piece of evidence cited by Welhouse was the Milwaukee Police Department report on the flawed 2004 election. It outlined absentee ballots never counted and poll workers allowing people clearly from outside the city to vote in Milwaukee.
Police investigators, though, found almost no evidence supporting the GOP’s claims of double voting and invalid addresses in that election.
There are, however, well-documented if isolated instances of double-voting -- or alleged double voting -- in Wisconsin.
Perhaps most memorably, Donovan Riley, a retired attorney running for state Senate, voted in Chicago and in Wisconsin in the 2000 presidential election. He was convicted in 2006.
More recently, a Milwaukee couple, Herb and Suzanne Gunka, were charged with voting by absentee ballot and at a polling place in the 2008 presidential election. They have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial; Herb Gunka says he voted on election day because he feared that his absentee ballot was not being counted.
Currently, investigators in Minnesota and Wisconsin are checking into possible cross-state double voting from 2008. And a task force set up by local, state and federal officials in 2008 has filed double-voting allegations in two cases, including the Gunka case.
Most of the election-fraud cases charged in recent years involve voting by felons who are ineligible, or voter-registration fraud by groups, officials say. Not cases where individuals voted repeatedly, which is what Fitzgerald focused on.
To make sure we weren’t missing any cases of people voting more than twice, we talked to 10 state, county and local elections officials, and law enforcement officers at the local and federal level.
None of the officials reported a case of voting more than two times. They said they couldn’t be totally sure that a local case had escaped their attention, but Reid Magney, a spokesman for the state office overseeing elections, said it was extremely unlikely.
In Fitzgerald’s home base, Juneau in Dodge County, election official Jane Fude said vote fraud was not a problem in a small town.
"We know who you are, where you live, where your parents live and what time you got home last night," Fude said.
It’s too early to say what fraud cases may emerge from the fall 2010 elections because records are still being checked, officials said.
Time to decide.
In trying to bolster the case for photo ID, the state Senate’s top Republican asserted that people have voted five to six times in the same election. His office couldn’t provide any evidence -- from Wisconsin or elsewhere -- to back that up. The one Wisconsin episode they mention as a possibility, the Marquette student, was disproved after extensive investigation. Election officials are unaware of anything on the level of serial voting that Fitzgerald refers to. And we were unable to turn up such a case in our research.
We rate his statement False.
Green Bay Press-Gazette.com, editorial, Dec. 9, 2010
Wisconsin Department of Justice, Van Hollen charges 5, March 8, 2010
Milwaukee Police Department, 2004 election investigation, February 2008
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Marquette University voting story, Dec. 21, 2000
Interviews with Andrew Welhouse, Fitzgerald communications director, Dec. 14 and 15, 2010
Interview with Bruce Landgraf, assistant district attorney, Milwaukee County, Dec. 15, 2010
Interview with Richard Frohling, criminal chief, U.S. Attorney’s office, Eastern District of Wisconsin, Dec. 14, 2010
Interview with Reid Magney, spokesman, Government Accountability Board, Dec. 15, 2010
Interview with Sue Edman, executive director, Milwaukee Election Commission, Dec. 15, 2010
Interview with Neil Albrecht, deputy director, Milwaukee Election Commission, Dec. 15, 2010
Interview with Lisa Weiner, administrator, Milwaukee County Election Commission, Dec. 15, 2010
Interviews with Bill Cosh, spokesman, Wisconsin Department of Justice, Dec. 15, 2010
Interview with Paul Ziehler, West Allis clerk/treasurer, Dec. 15, 2010
Interview with Carla Ledesma, Wauwatosa city clerk, Dec. 15, 2010
Interview with Jane Fude, Juneau deputy clerk, Dec. 15, 2010
Interview with John Somers, Beaver Dam director of administration, Dec. 15, 2010
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