RACINE — A Republican activist claims that a local student get-out-the-vote effort was inappropriate and partisan, but others disagree and refute some of his claims as simply untrue.
Immigrant rights nonprofit Voces de la Frontera held the get-out-the-vote effort during the June 5 recall election.
Republicans say the group is Democratic-leaning and used school time to have Racine Unified high schoolers encourage voting only in historically Democratic wards. Voces de la Frontera officials maintain that their get out the vote event was nonpartisan — and has been since it started in 2004 — and that the voting wards students visited were picked solely based on low voter turnout in previous elections. Students also had parent permission to participate during school hours, said Kate Werning, Voces de la Frontera’s youth organizer.
“They made it very clear that we were to remain unbiased,” said get-out-the-vote participant Lani Jensen, 18, who just graduated from Horlick High School. “They actually gave us a dialogue, a piece of paper, of what to say.”
Jensen and about 350 other students went door to door on June 5, encouraging people to cast ballots in that day’s recall election. The students, from Horlick, Park, Case and Walden high schools, knocked on 8,000 doors in 15 Racine voting wards and talked to 1,300 people who didn’t plan on voting but committed to do so after speaking with students, Werning said.
“People did ask (who to vote for) and I’m like, ‘Whoever you want. Just go vote,’” said participant Lucero Rocha, 16, a Horlick junior.
But Voces de la Frontera does support Democratic causes like immigrant rights and restoring collective bargaining even though group officials say it’s nonpartisan. Students also gathered for the voting event at the Racine Labor Center, 2100 Layard Ave., and rode around in vans decorated in Democratic signage, said Lou D’Abbraccio, who runs the Racine GOP Election Observer program. D’Abbraccio said that the labor center is far from “neutral ground” and that he saw the partisan vans with his own eyes.
The labor center was chosen as an event base because Voces de la Frontera has an office there and it’s centrally located, Werning said. She added it’s “completely false” that students were riding in vans with partisan signage.
“Our vans did have messages but they said, ‘Voting is power,’ ‘Vote today,’ and ‘Make a difference,’” she said.
Targeting certain wards
The voting wards students visited were selected for having the lowest voter turnout and being in Racine, where most students live, where the majority of Racine Unified high schools are located and where voter turnout is overall lower than in other neighboring municipalities, Werning said.
“Because our goal was to increase civic engagement, we went into the places where people don’t vote most often,” she said, explaining the political leanings of the wards were not considered.
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D’Abbraccio doesn’t believe that though, and said political bias led Voces de la Frontera to focus on Racine.
“One of the comments from the students involved was they were taken from Case High School (in Mount Pleasant) and driven through any number of red and purple wards to a solidly blue ward which they walked through three times on Election Day,” D’Abbraccio said. “(Voces de la Frontera) is claiming they dragged 1,200 people to the polls and if that’s the case and they focused entirely on Democratic wards, then that’s your tax dollars at work changing the outcome of an election.”
Former state Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, defeated incumbent state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, by 834 votes, according to canvass results. A recount is under way.
Using school time
Tax dollars may have led to Wanggaard’s defeat, D’Abbraccio said, because students helped get out the vote during the school day and were “recruited” in school buildings by teachers who offered extra credit.
“It’s partisan political activity promoted by people whose salaries I pay in a building that I pay for and you pay for. It is quite frankly inappropriate,” he said, adding that would be true even for a Republican-leaning activity.
D’Abbraccio would not say who told him get out the vote was promoted in schools. Racine Unified Superintendent Ann Laing said schools did nothing to promote the event and no staff offered extra credit.
Teachers who took part also did so on “personal time” and students who participated during the school day had to have parents call them in under an excused absence for a community event, Werning said.
She added Voces de la Frontera holds the event to teach civic engagement.
Racine Unified School Board member Sue Kutz, who’s been on the board since the get-out-the-vote events began, said students should have the right to take part in such activities.
“I don’t care about the partisan politics. It gets them involved and helps them understand how the election process works,” Kutz said. “If this is something they want to do and the parents are supporting it, that’s their right and ability to do that.”
No complaints about the event have been filed with the Government Accountability Board. But D’Abbraccio said that is his “next priority.”