Swing State Scramble: A Wisconsin Volunteer’s Narrative

Lawyer Frank Currie spent election week working for the Obama voter protection effort in Milwaukee.  

I wanted to address voter protection issues because I have been really disturbed by efforts to suppress the disadvantaged vote in many states.  I had originally intended to work in Miami because of my experiences monitoring polls in the 2008 election – at that time I had been stunned by the six hour wait to vote, and moved by the voters’ determination to endure it to cast their ballots.  However, the Florida campaign couldn’t seem to get their act together to train out of state volunteers in a timely manner, so when I got an offer to go to Wisconsin, another swing state, I jumped on it.

My son-in-law is a Wisconsin native whose family has been very welcoming to our family.  In addition, my favorite ex-Cal player, Aaron Rogers, plays for the Packers, so all the signs were auspicious.

Wisconsin has had a pretty turbulent recent history.  It elected a conservative governor, Scott Walker in 2010, who promptly tried to enact  anti-union legislation.  This resulted in the Democrats forcing a recall election of Walker this summer, which failed. With such an active political agenda, Wisconsin has a large number of motivated and registered voters.  Romney thought he had an excellent chance to win Wisconsin in 2012 due to his choice of Wisconsin’s Ryan as his VP ticket mate, and because of Scott Walker’s success in winning the recall election.

As with many states, Wisconsin has done a lot of recent tinkering with its election laws.  I would characterize the present law as moderately tough.  No ID is required for a registered voter (all the voter needs to do is to sign the voting book at the polls), and a voter can register without showing a photo ID (this is especially important because many low income voters do not have drivers’ license or other suitable photo IDs).  The registration requirement can be met if a voter can recite the last four numbers of the voter’s social security number, and if the voter can produce a “government document”, or a lease, utility bill or bank statement showing the voter’s name and current address.  A favorable part of Wisconsin law is same day registration – which is shared by only 7 states. (This is not entirely altruistic, since states that do not have same day registration are required to have their DMVs offer voter registration at the same time a driver’s license is renewed.) Wisconsin also permits early voting, although the number of polling places is pretty limited (there is only one early voting polling station in all of Milwaukee) and the number of early voting days has been significantly reduced from 2008, to the 8 days ending the Friday before the election.

I arrived on the Wednesday evening before election.  After getting trained in Wisconsin’s voter laws, I went to the Milwaukee polling station as an Obama voter protection observer for Thursday and Friday.  I was very impressed by the knowledge and kindness of the poll workers.  They worked hard to keep the lines moving well (I don’t think I ever saw a wait of more than an hour), to try to limit the length of the lines in the cold weather outside, and to help intimidated voters feel comfortable.  Voters were warmly greeted and directed to the proper lines; they were not rushed, and their questions were patiently and accurately answered.  The poll workers were thorough in helping voters with incomplete registration documentation understand which records would be required.  I became extremely proud of how efficient and helpful government can be. By law, Wisconsin also has an elaborate curbside registration and voting procedure for voters who are too handicapped to come in and stand in line.

The job of a poll observer is to view the polling location to make sure the vote is going smoothly, to ensure that the poll workers are giving accurate information and making correct legal decisions, and to ensure that no voter intimidation occurs.  The voting process is supposed to be transparent, while at the same time protecting the voter’s privacy. Observers must register at the polling station and identify the organization they represent.  Any citizen is allowed to observe, but the Chief Inspector (who is given a lot of discretion to make decision to ensure that voting goes smoothly) may limit the number observers to one per organization, and to kick out disruptive observers.  There is an elaborate protocol for observers, who must stay at least 6 feet from any registration table or voting booth, and who aren’t allowed to speak to a voter unless requested to by the voter.  All observer comments must be directed to the Chief Inspector, and not the poll workers.  At the same time, the observer may listen to the registration process to make sure it is lawfully complied with, but may not touch any document provided by a voter (to ensure privacy).

The Milwaukee polling station had at any one time between two and four Obama observers, divided between the registration desk upstairs and the register voter location downstairs.  The Romney team generally had between six and eight observers.  Many of the Romney team signed in as “self” or “concerned citizen” rather than as Romney representatives, but we knew who they were.  They usually had very suspicious faces, convinced that voter fraud was rampant, especially with minority voters.  (Minorities seemed to represent about half of the early Milwaukee voters.)  One Obama observer was usually downstairs with the registered voters, but there was little controversy there.  The “action” was typically either at the registration desk, or at the curbsite voting for the handicapped.  The actions of the Romney observers at curbside was shocking if they did not see an Obama observer was around.  To intimidate voters, they took pictures of license plates.  Parking was extremely limited (until we figured out a way on Friday to route curbsite voting to a quiet street near the registered voter entrance), so when a handicapped car was not completely legal, the Romney observer would call the police to ask them to ticket.  On Thursday, the police ticketed, until we called the mayor’s office to intervene with the police.  On Friday, I saw the Romney observer call the police when a van with a back door mini elevator transporting three wheelchair voters was too close to the crosswalk.  Fortunately, as the police came by, a wheelchair with a handicapped voter was in the mini elevator, so the police woman sensibly refused to do anything.  I was also taken to task by the Republican observers when an asthmatic on a respirator waiting for curbside voting gasped that he had to pee right away, and could I help him find a bathroom.  So I did, and in the process crossed the observer six foot limit line. Mortal sin!  However, the asthmatic made it to the bathroom in time.

The registration desk involved a lot of haranguing, shouting and illegal snatching of documents when the Romney inspector thought that the voter documentation was insufficient.  One young white male had his lease challenged; even though his documentation was accepted by the election official,  he was intimidated by the experience, ripped up his ballot and left the polling station before voting.

That was the exception.  Most of the voters, especially the minorities and the elderly, were grimly determined to vote and came in with set jaws.  I was so impressed by the elderly and handicapped, who withstood a lot of physical discomfort with good humor in order to vote (“Don’t worry, I have nothing better to do”).  One elderly woman even stopped to vote on her way home from the hospital.  The lines, especially at closing and on the last Friday of the early vote, were really long, and the wait outside was cold, especially for this thin blooded Californian, but people did not leave until their ballots were handed in.

My next job before election day, since the early voting had ended, was to man the Voter Protection hot line.  Wow, what an experience.  Seldom were the skills required (quick data entry on my iPhone to locate the correct polling location) and my talents so mismatched.  So I pleaded for patience as I made yet another typo, and the callers were very tolerant of my inefficiency.  The hot line made me appreciate the true hardships that many people are going through.  A number of callers had lost their jobs in the deep south, and had in desperation recently come to Milwaukee to live with relatives.  Yet they were also determined to register and vote.  So, after finding the right polling place, I had to walk through the required registration documentation.  Most of my callers did not have a Wisconsin driver’s license or other acceptable photo ID.  Everyone could recite his or her social security number.  As for a lease, utility bill or bank statement, those living with relatives were out of luck.  So the focus became what the voter could produce for a “government document”, and some of the solutions were ingenious.  One caller said he has a speeding ticket (perfect!), and for others, I suggested a co-workers solution of going to the public library and getting a verification, which contains the caller’s name and address, that the caller did not have any overdue books!

On election day, I was assigned to a boiler room, to answer the questions of the 20 Obama poll observers assigned to me, and to make sure they were monitoring their poll for possible glitches.  My colleagues were, for the most part, local Milwaukee lawyers who routinely volunteer as observers on election day.  I got a fantastic education on local lore.  My colleagues knew each polling station and how it traditionally voted, and liberally supplemented their observations with stories of past elections.  They also knew how to make a polling station run smoothly, so, under their tutelage, I learned to get my observers to monitor the supply on hand of unused ballots and registration materials, and how to make the voting lines move faster (Observers should befriend their Chief Election Inspector, or “Chief”, suggest to him or her that ballots or registration materials be replenished before a crisis, persuade the Chief to re-assign poll workers or “split the voter books” among different poll workers when lines are more than 30 minutes long, and even swear in Milwaukee residents as additional poll workers when more poll worker hands were needed).  My colleagues also knew who to call at City Hall to fix extra machines or replenish ballots, and who to call at the District Attorney’s office when Republican observers started to intimidate voters.  My job on election day was a political junkie’s dream.

As I worked in the boiler room on election day and learned of the huge number of new voters who were registering that day, I began to understand the strength of the Obama field operation in locating and persuading unregistered voters to go to the polls.  All these votes were totally under the radar screen of both the pollsters (who measure either the number of “registered”, or “registered and likely” voters)  and the Romney campaign.  As a result, the Obama voting percentage in Wisconsin significantly outperformed the published polls.

Of course, Tuesday night was really sweet.  Wisconsin not only elected Obama by a six percent margin, but elected the country’s first openly lesbian senator.  As for the rest of the US, the three senate candidates I personally knew and actively supported, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Tim Kaine, were elected, and Kate’s law school classmate Joe Kennedy won Barney Frank’s old house seat.

I learned so much this past week, and really hope that more citizens can volunteer for the same experience.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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