An e-mail proves that a Wisconsin city clerk was trying to prevent students from voting because they are Democrats.
On 25 October 2016, the progressive news and opinion publication The Nation published an article with an e-mail embedded in it, which the periodical claimed was evidence of “ongoing GOP attempts to suppress the vote”:
After the primary, leaders of eight different student groups — including the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian parties and the Black Student Union — asked the city to put an early-voting location on campus to alleviate long lines. But city officials ignored the request and opened only one early-voting site on September 26 for the entire city — the third-largest in Wisconsin — at the clerk’s office, a 15-minute drive from campus, which is open only during business hours. City Clerk Kris Teske, an appointee of Republican Mayor Jim Schmitt, a close ally of Governor Scott Walker, said the city didn’t have the money, time, or security to open an early-voting location on campus or anywhere else.
But privately Teske gave a different reason for opposing an early-voting site at UW–Green Bay, writing that student voting would benefit the Democratic Party.
But the e-mail shared by The Nation doesn’t necessarily prove that Teske was trying suppress the Democratic vote. Instead, it may document that she was concerned a Democratic lawmaker might have been pushing for early voting at the college to benefit his political party:
I have a State Representative who is being very persistent about having an alternate polling location at UWGB. I don’t like the idea at all for many reasons. Staffing, ballot security, budget, etc. He is on the ballot for 25 of our wards. I was reading the statutes and read: No site may be designated that affords an advantage to any political party. UWGB is a polling location for students and residents on Election Day but I feel by asking for this to be the site for early voting is encouraging the students to vote more than benefiting the city as a whole. I have heard it said that students lean more toward the democrats and he is a democrat. I have spoken with our Chief of Staff and others at City Hall and they agree that budget wise this isn’t going to happen.
The city sent us the entire exchange between Teske and Nathan Judnic, staff counsel for the Wisconsin Elections Commission. In the exchange, Teske cited multiple reasons for not favoring the campus as a satellite polling location. The possibility that it might favor the Democrats when a Democratic candidate who had been advocating its use was just one:
The only reason why I thought it would not be a good alternative site is because anyone that doesn’t attend UWGB doesn’t like UWGB as their polling location because it is a very huge campus and tricky to navigate but after the redistricting the Clerk was told to have one there. I can’t see anyone but the students using it during in-person absentee voting. If I could have an alternative site it wouldn’t be there.
Celestine Jeffreys, chief of staff for the Green Bay mayor’s office, contacted us and said Teske’s comments had been mischaracterized amidst the city’s attempts to determine where to place a potential satellite early in-person absentee polling locations. As of now, the city has one in place at the centrally-located City Clerk’s Office. Jeffreys said Eric Genrich, a state representative and Democrat, was advocating placing another one at the campus, and Teske was simply seeking guidance from election ethics attorneys about that recommendation (Jeffreys added that Genrich doesn’t represent the campus but was making the request on behalf of the students):
She just wanted to make sure she was not going to violate the law and that we were going to have access for everyone, and that we had the money to do it.
Wisconsin state law requires polling locations be placed as to not provide either party with an advantage:
The designated site shall be located as near as practicable to the office of the municipal clerk or board of election commissioners and no site may be designated that affords an advantage to any political party.
According to a statement from the city, “the clerk was asking for guidance interpreting that statute.”
The e-mail was acquired by the non-profit One Wisconsin Institute, which has been heavily active in advocating for voter access in the state, by way of public records request and given to The Nation. Jeffreys said The Nation did not reach out to Teske to clarify what it meant.
The story also asserted the Teske e-mail was one more item of proof of a larger pattern of Republican-led efforts to limit voting by communities that traditionally support Democratic candidates:
Last month, The Nation reported how Wisconsin was systematically refusing to issue the voter IDs people needed to cast a ballot, while claiming everyone was getting an ID. The e-mails from the Green Bay clerk are more evidence of how Republicans in the state are saying one thing publicly while pursuing a different agenda privately.
There is without doubt a fight underway in Wisconsin over voting rights. In July 2016, a federal judge tossed out restrictions he said were tailored to suppress the vote of largely African-American residents who tend to vote for the Democratic party:
U.S. District Judge James Peterson, in a 119-page ruling issued late Friday, said that the state Legislature tailored that part of the law to curtail voting in Milwaukee, specifically “to suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African-Americans.”
“Wisconsin has the authority to regulate its elections to preserve their integrity,” Peterson wrote, “and a voter ID requirement can be part of a well-conceived election system. But … parts of Wisconsin’s election regime fail to comply with the constitutional requirement that its elections remain fair and equally open to all qualified electors.” …
“We argued Gov. Walker made it harder for Democrats to vote and easier for Republicans to cheat, and the judge agreed,” said Scot Ross, executive director of the One Wisconsin Institute.
While Wisconsin is adjudicated as having created unconstitutional voting restrictions favoring the Republican party, that doesn’t mean the Green Bay city clerk was part of the problem. While she expressed concern about early voting at a college campus that might benefit Democratic candidates, it appears she was raising a legal question about what she believed could be one candidate’s trying to influence the election outcome.
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