By Dustin Block
RACINE - Hoping to curb voter fraud, Wisconsin Republicans want volunteers to monitor future elections for rules violations, party officials said.
Racine resident Reince Priebus will chair the election reform panel, which intends to create a statewide poll-watching program for the 2002 elections.
Priebus, chairman of the First Congressional District Republican Party, said the program is a response to reported voting fraud in the last presidential election. Among the violations included more than 300 felons illegally voting and a Democratic supporter from New York giving Milwaukee homeless people cigarettes in exchange for votes.
Republicans say the poll-watchers are needed to break a legislative stalemate over election reforms - a stalemate they blame on Democrats. Meanwhile, Democrats counter they have offered their own series of election reforms that have been either stalled or rejected by the Assembly.
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State law allows anyone to observe elections for impropriety, though they cannot interfere with the voting process or videotape polling places, which is considered by some to be intimidation.
If an observer spots a problem, they could contact the appropriate authorities to correct the mistake, or eventually protest the vote.
"This program is going to help protect the integrity of the voting process," said Priebus, who added that the GOP's effort is expected to improve elections without spending money.
"It's something that's going to help everybody," he said.
Republicans implemented their first poll-watching effort last week in a special Senate election. No improprieties were reported in Republican Ted Kanavas's landslide victory on July 10 over Democrat Dawn Marie Sass. Kanavas, of Brookfield, won 74 percent of the vote to replace Margaret Farrow, who left the post to become lieutenant governor.
State party Chairman Richard Graber said the poll-watching effort went "spectacularly well."
"We plan to keep the momentum alive," he said.
Priebus will chair a committee of about 12 members from around the state. The group's goal is to recruit volunteers to learn about state election laws and then watch a polling places during elections.
Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican, included $30,000 in his state budget to train election watchers. Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the State Elections Board, said the dollars set aside to train watchers would be better spent training poll workers to deal with election problems. "It's a waste of money," he said of the proposal.
Many election problems could be solved by teaching poll workers how to address large election crowds, Kennedy added, and by recruiting more people to help with elections.
"It's hard to plan for something you do six times a year," he said, arguing for additional poll worker training. "What are you going to do in a two-hour session? It takes us an hour to teach people how to open and close the polls."
The Democrat-led Senate and the Republican-led Assembly each passed election reform legislation. But the bills vary in their scope, and differences between the bills were not resolved before both bodies turned their attention to the budget, which also includes differences over election reforms.
State Sen. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, wrote legislation that would, among other measures, extend voting hours in some areas, study creating a statewide voter registration list and make it easier for people to leave to work polls. The bill, introduced with Sen. Kim Plache, D-Racine, passed the Senate on a partisan vote but is tangled in procedural maneuvering in the Assembly.
Meanwhile, Republican legislators have called for changes in the state election laws to require photo IDs when voting and to eliminate same-day voter registration, and the state GOP recruited 70 volunteers from around the state to lobby for the changes. The Assembly passed the bill, but the Senate has yet to take action on the measures.
The Assembly reform efforts also appear in that body's state budget, but not in the Senate's spending plan. A conference committee resolving differences between the two budgets has not decided if the proposals will remain in the final spending plan.
Priebus said the grassroots, poll-watching election reform was a step Republicans could enact without working through politics. He accused Democratic leaders of failing to prosecute election violations - the woman who traded cigarettes for votes was fined $5,000 - and stalling on reforms.
"For us to sit back and wait for them to crack down on illegal voting activity and enact reform is a waste of time," Priebus said. "Our volunteer poll-watching program is proving that the people of Wisconsin want fair, clean elections - and we're going to help deliver on that goal."
Plache said it was unfair to say the Senate was stalling election reforms. In addition to Moore's legislation, Senate Democrats approved a bill to reform campaign finance laws that would have required issue ads to disclose who funded the ad. The Assembly, on a partisan vote, rejected the legislation.
Plache added that the Senate is exploring other forms of campaign finance reform, and said she opposed Republican reforms because they could lead to lower voter turnouts.
"We might have different ideas, but it's not at all true that we're stalling election reforms," she said.