Election integrity: Checking on past violations and answering ineligible voter questions

Published: Nov. 1, 2022 at 8:05 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - Voters want to know they can count on there being integrity in their elections. Here is a look at some common questions about how election workers and municipal clerks work to prevent ineligible voters from casting ballots, and a check on some past violations in Marathon County and Shawano County.

Deceased voters

The statewide voter registration database, clerks tell NewsChannel 7, changes regularly -- as much as daily in the lead-up to Election Day -- as people register or get deactivated from the list. Among those who get deactivated are people who have died.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission receives information from the Department of Health Services about people’s deaths. The WEC compares that list of deceased people to the list of registered voters. It then contacts local clerks, asking them to check if the name matches up to their records in their municipality.

”If say, someone had an absentee application on file and then we get notice that this person has passed away, then their ballot, and their application, and their voter record will all become deactivated,” Kaitlyn Bernarde, Wausau City Clerk said. “So, that ballot would not count for that election and then they would not be active to vote in future elections.”

Clerks can check obituaries and other official sources with information about deaths too. Loved ones can also notify clerks to ensure they are off the list.

Wisconsin law states: “When by due proof it appears to the inspectors or, in municipalities where absentee ballots are canvassed under s. 7.52, when by due proof it appears to the board of absentee ballot canvassers that a person casting an absentee ballot at an election has died before the date of the election, the inspectors or board of absentee ballot canvassers shall return the ballot with defective ballots to the issuing official. The casting of the ballot of a deceased elector does not invalidate the election.”

If someone votes in person at the polls on Election Day and then dies that same day, because the ballots are anonymized, Bernarde said there is no way to invalidate that vote and the ballot is counted. Poll workers are trained to ensure voters have a valid form of identification and check the list of registered voters too to ensure people do not vote for someone else.

People serving felony sentences

In Wisconsin, people lose the right to vote if they are serving a felony sentence. Those voting rights are restored once that sentence is complete, including any supervision, probation, or parole. Similar to the DHS providing the WEC with lists of deceased persons, the Department of Corrections regularly updates the WEC and clerks on the status of individuals, regardless of whether there is an election.

”If someone is adamant that their rights have been restored, they can call our office and we can connect with the WEC to see if their rights have been restored,” Bernarde said. “We had a case of that in August where they-- during in-person absentee voting, they were and so we were able to give them a ballot that day.”

Moving residences near Election Day

One of the more common places where voters can get confused, Bernarde explained, is when a voter moves homes near Election Day. A person would have to have lived at their residence for 28 days before Election Day in order to vote in their new jurisdiction.

For example, if a person lived in Weston and moved two weeks ago to Wausau, they would be ineligible to vote in Wausau but could vote in Weston.

Bernarde noted whether double voting in different jurisdictions, voting while serving a felony sentence, or casting a ballot on behalf of a deceased voter is all election fraud. Clerks must report all cases of fraud to their county’s district attorney’s office. People can make a claim that someone is ineligible to vote in an election, but they have to provide some proof.

Elections violations in the Town of Birnamwood

The WEC sided with a complainant after it determined there were election violations in the Town of Birnamwood during the spring election in 2021.

Steven Steinke told NewsChannel 7 he had concerns leading up to that election. He saw that some of the people who appeared to be poll workers included a candidate on the ballot and a candidate’s spouse. He also had concerns about the number of poll workers signed up to manage the election. He researched the rules, but did not say anything ahead of Election Day.

“I didn’t feel it was my place to say, ‘hey you folks better watch yourself,’” he explained. “They’re trained people, they know the rules, they know the guidelines. I can only hope that they operate properly and overall then they didn’t.”

He went to the polls on Election Day and his concerns were realized, so he filed a complaint with the WEC, noting that the process was simple and the WEC was helpful. Again, the WEC found his concerns to be valid.

Deb Kessen was a candidate on the ballot and worked at the polls; Steinke called her an election inspector in his complaint. Kessen stated in response to the allegation to the WEC that “she did not serve as an election official, but rather as a registration clerk.” Basically arguing that a registration clerk is different than an election inspector and therefore not an election official, adding that she had been an inspector in the past when not on the ballot. The clerk, Dennis Knaak agreed with Kessen’s understanding.

Clerk Knaack also filed a response related to the number of poll workers; the law requires that there be an odd number of election inspectors. In his response, he noted he had an odd number of poll workers (three), but the count would include Kessen. He noted the two other workers were spouses of candidates, including his own wife.

The WEC determined that having spouses serve as election officials to be more of an ethics violation. It recommends that the town no longer allow spouses or immediate family of candidates to serve as elections officials, “as it may constitute a violation of other provisions of the law, but this issue does not raise probable cause to believe that a violation of Wisconsin Statues Chapter 5-10 and 12 occurred.”

As for the number of poll workers and Kessen’s status, it sided with Steinke.

“It is undisputed in the complaint and response materials that ballot candidates and spouses were performing duties in the Town of Birnamwood’s polling place on election day. It is of no consequence that these parties served as a “registration clerk” or carried out other allegedly benign functions. The mere appearance of potential influence or electioneering becomes problematic under those circumstances. Of particular importance is that Wis. Stat. 5.02(4e) defines “election official” as “an individual who is charged with any duties relating to the conduct of an election.” (emphasis added) It is, therefore, a breach of the plainly stated requirements of Wis. Stat. § 7.30 to have ballot candidates working in the polling place on election day.”

As for any consequences, the WEC told the town not to do that again and to comply with all of the election laws in future elections. Steinke wanted more recourse. He was told he could bring it to the Shawano County district attorney, but he did not think it would go anywhere, so he did not.

He also wished the town would more publicly and prominently post the violation at the town or on the website. It was only briefly noted in one meeting in October of 2021. The next month, the town board removed the ability of the public to be able to comment or add an agenda item to meetings.

Steinke reached out to the board via email in December of last year trying to add an agenda item related to ambulance services and possible cost increase to the next town board meeting. Knaak responded in part:

“The town board voted to remove public comments as an agenda item at last months (sic) board meeting. By doing so members of the public do not have the right to have items placed on the agenda for board discussion.”

NewsChannel 7 reached out to Knaak for an interview. Knaak replied in an email that he was not available until after deer season.

Elections violations in the Town of Bergen

The clerk for the Town of Bergen, near Mosinee, has been charged with two felony counts related to election violations during the 2020 general election, along with a third misdemeanor count of obstructing an officer. Two other election officials were also charged in relation to that case.

According to court documents, the Marathon County District Attorney’s Office’s special investigator, Greg Hagenbucher looked into a complaint of a person possibly double voting: once in Edgar and once in Bergen. The voter appeared to have signed under her current legal name and former legal name.

Voting records showed that Bergen had one less ballot cast than there were voters who signed the voter roll to receive a ballot. The signature in question on the roll also appeared to be upside down compared to the rest of the signatures. Mary Gebert was noted as the town’s clerk and Karen Kudla was the chief inspector for the entire day on Election Day, Arlene Domagola was noted as having worked as a signature inspector during the evening of the election.

Court records lay out that Hagenbucher spoke with a Bergen assistant clerk, who explained to him she asked Gebert about the discrepancy between the number of ballots cast and the number on the roll. The assistant clerk told him that Gebert answered that the discrepancy was due to an overseas voter. The county clerk and this assistant clerk compared known handwriting from Gebert and the signature in question and Hagenbucher reports they found that the handwritings were similar.

Hagenbucher also spoke with the voter in question, who stated to him that she only voted in Edgar. She added the name used in the Bergen case was a name she does not use anymore and she had no idea who would have signed her name.

According to Hagenbucher’s report, he spoke with Gebert, Kudla, and Domagola. Gebert told him she was not there when people came in and signed their names on the voter roll, so she was not sure of the source of the discrepancy or signature in question. She also told him, “That is not my handwriting on there,” “that’s not me.”

The same day, Hagenbucher asked Kudla about the discrepancy and she told him she did not know who signed the roll and was “floored” by the discrepancy in the ballots versus voter registration. She stated that one of her jobs that day was to review those records to ensure the number of registered voter signatures matched with the number of ballots cast and she did not remember there being a missing signature. She offered that someone may have come in with identification as that person pretending to be that voter.

A few weeks later, the court records show Hagenbucher spoke with Domagola, who said she verified the signature books that night with Kudla. When asked if she knew who signed the signature in question, she told him she would rather not answer that question but she did not do it. She added she did not want to get anyone in trouble.

When Hagenbucher stated it appeared the voter may have voted twice, “Domagola stated, ‘no, no.’ She stated, it’s not that. She state it was exhausted people at the end of the day making a poor decision.”

After speaking with Domagola, Hagenbucher went back to speak with Gebert who then admitted to signing the poll book after the election workers (Kudla and Domagola) could not find one of the voter numbers. It allowed them to “close the books,” Gebert told Hagenbucher, but she said she did not know why she picked the person she did as a signature.

Kudla and Domagola plead no contest and received entered into deferred entry of judgment agreements, which are scheduled to be reviewed in 2028.

Gebert was allowed to continue working as the town clerk, but requires supervision when performing any duties related to elections. Prosecutors noted in a motion at the beginning of this year to modify her bond agreement to not allow her to continue working elections, that her husband was the board president and her daughter was the town treasurer. The prosecutor raised concerns about the ability of others to be able to provide effective supervision of Gebert. The motion added, “Defendant has also reached out to the County Clerk and threatened that her husband and daughter would also quit if she was removed from office.”

The judge continued to allow the bond conditions. A jury status hearing is scheduled for Election Day, Nov. 8, with a jury trial scheduled for early December.