Wisconsin DOJ investigates voter fraud as election officials debate absenteeism rules

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MADISON, Wis. – With a few mouse clicks this week, a conservative activist has wreaked havoc on Wisconsin’s electoral apparatus ahead of the Aug. 9 primary.

Harry Wait of Dover, Wisconsin, said he requested mail-in ballots on behalf of two high-profile politicians be sent to one’s own address trying to show that voter fraud is easy to do. He contacted local authorities on Wednesday to detail what he had done and demand immediate changes, then informed as many people as possible of what he considers a serious vulnerability.

The stunt showed that a person and a computer or smartphone could shake up the state’s election system and force election officials to weigh changes to the state’s mail-in ballot procedures — and whether that would make the vote more difficult.

He also caught the attention of law enforcement. A spokeswoman for Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (D) said Friday his office is investigating the case after consulting with Racine County’s top prosecutor.

The state Elections Commission — a body evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans — held an emergency meeting Thursday night to discuss what to do. Republican President Don Millis asked if changes could or should be made to the state’s online voting portal, MyVote Wisconsin.

Millis said he feared Wait’s fraudulent ballot requests could lead others to do the same. The commissioners have no easy way to prevent this, except by telling the public that potential fraudsters will be quickly caught and prosecuted.

MyVote allows anyone to search for a voter using their name and date of birth. The person can then request an absentee ballot under their name and have it sent anywhere – a feature that is in place so voters who are temporarily away from home have a way to vote.

Wait said he logged into MyVote Wisconsin on Tuesday and entered the names and birthdates of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) and Racine Mayor Cory Mason (D) – two officials with whom he clashed on several occasions, particularly over voting-related issues. Impersonating them, he requested that their ballots be sent to his home.

Wait said he received Mason’s ballot on Friday, three days after he requested it, and he provided a photo of it. He said he planned to return it to the city clerk unopened.

Most voters must provide a copy of photo ID the first time they request an absentee ballot. Under state law, voters who say they are indefinitely housebound due to age or disability do not have to provide identification. Wait marked himself as indefinitely confined.

Requesting a ballot via MyVote generates an email to the voter’s clerk. The poll clerk can check with the voter to make sure the request is legitimate and make the final decision on whether to send a ballot.

Barry Burden, director of the Center for Election Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said someone engaging in such activity would likely be caught because the fraudulent application would be discovered when the real voter requests a vote. by post or turn up at the polls. Burden said he was unaware of any scheme similar to Wait’s.

He added that while the electoral systems are not perfect, there have been no signs of widespread fraud after numerous reviews of recent elections.

“There are no easy solutions,” Burden said. “Organizing an election is complicated and there are many different needs that need to be met. If the public expects perfection or if decision makers expect perfection, they will be disappointed. It is not feasible.

But with some supporters of former President Donald Trump clinging to the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen, Wait’s decision could spur others to engage in similar activities. This will force election officials to decide whether or not to change their practices, Burden said.

The commissioners said shutting down MyVote would do little to prevent the kind of fraud Wait engaged in because state law allows voters to request mail-in ballots by filling out a form in person, by mail or by e-mail.

“There are those who want us to close MyVote for this purpose [of requesting absentee ballots], when all you would have to do is start emailing,” Millis said. “You can take the list you bought and just send emails to the clerks saying to start sending out the ballots. It would be easy – just as easy, maybe easier, than doing it on MyVote.

Voter fraud in Wisconsin and elsewhere is rare. Last year, the Wisconsin commission identified 41 cases of potential voter fraud in primaries and elections in late 2020 and early 2021 — a tiny amount compared to the millions of votes cast.

The commission voted Thursday to remind clerks that they should notify prosecutors when they see signs of fraud. He also agreed to send postcards to voters who had an absentee ballot mailed to an address other than their home address. This mailing will go to around 4,000 voters, giving them the opportunity to contact the authorities if they have not applied to vote.

The commission was united on those votes, but Democrats said the main way to prevent future trouble was to bill Wait. Some of them grew impatient with the discussion on the site and insisted that the commission formally urge prosecutors to indict Wait.

“From what I’ve gleaned from the reports, Harry Wait has admitted to cheating. It seems to me that the way to stop cheating is to continue cheating and not talk about weird issues,” Mark said. Thomsen, a Democrat on the commission.

Millis, the chairman of the commission, said he eventually wanted to seek prosecution, but first needed to find out more about what happened and which prosecutor was best suited to handle it.

Wait made the fraudulent ballot requests after spending the last year and a half arguing that the 2020 presidential election was rife with fraud. Joe Biden beat Trump by about 21,000 votes in Wisconsin and those results have been confirmed by court rulings and independent reviews.

Last year, Vos hired former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to look into the election. Wait helped connect Gableman to other election skeptics, and his brother, Gary Wait, served as an investigator for Gableman.

Democrats have denounced Gableman’s efforts as a baseless attack on democracy, in part because he has sought to jail mayors and election officials who he says are not cooperating with him. Wait, meanwhile, argued that Vos was not doing enough to ensure the integrity of the election and attacked him relentlessly. He assists Vos’ opponent Adam Steen in the Aug. 9 primary.

Wait Friday said he heard people say they planned to follow his lead and hoped they would overwhelm the state’s mail-in voting system.

“I get a huge amount of support but, you know, talking costs nothing,” he said. “So if we start to see people flooding MyVote with absentee voters, sending them everywhere, then that would be the kind of behavior I’m hoping to see so that they actually fix what’s broken.”

Wait alerted Racine County District Attorney Patricia Hanson (R) and Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling to what he had done in an email shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday. Later that morning, he emailed Schmaling to tell him he was at the county fair if he wanted to arrest him.

Schmaling first reacted to the news in a Facebook post and made no mention of investigating Wait, but called on the state to change its online voting portal.

Schmaling, who was the keynote speaker at a pro-Trump event in 2020, spoke to the far-right Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association this month. There he joked about beating former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) in a goat milking contest and defended his efforts to indict five Wisconsin election commissioners for how they voted in nursing homes. So far, his appeal for charges has remained a dead letter.

Wait said she spoke to Schmaling on Wednesday, a day before the district attorney announced she had asked Schmaling to investigate what Wait had done. Wait said Schmaling thanked him for revealing problems with the state’s mail-in voting system and said “Hell no,” when Wait asked if he was going to shut him down.

In a Facebook post, Schmaling’s office confirmed Wait’s account of their conversation on Friday, but also said Schmaling told Wait he didn’t have to do what he did.

“Criminal arrests are not based on late night emails and requests for arrest,” the sheriff’s office wrote in the post.

“Sheriff Schmaling understands Wait’s passion and commitment to honest, open and transparent government, especially when it comes to elections; however, he never gave Wait permission or consent for Wait’s actions.

On Friday, the attorney general resumed the investigation. The move came less than 24 hours after Democrats on the Elections Committee demanded action.

“I’m amazed and outraged that he thinks this is a cute thing as he commits crimes and brags about it in an effort to undermine our electoral system,” said Ann Jacobs, a Democrat on the commission. . “I appreciate the president’s desire to be thoughtful, but sometimes when people are fully confessing in the paper, we don’t really need to get into a long analysis about it.”

Emma Brown contributed to this report.

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