-- By Brendan Fischer and William Dooling.
MADISON -- Claims by an out-of-state Tea Party group that the campaign to recall Governor Scott Walker is fraught with error do not stand up to even limited scrutiny.
Findings released this week from the Tea Party-led "Verify the Recall" effort allege that recall proponents fell short of the 540,000 signatures necessary to recall Governor Scott Walker. However, a cursory review of the pages they allege are erroneous actually include the information they claim is missing. Signatures the groups deem "ineligible" are very clearly legitimate. Some of the problems appear to arise from data entry errors on the part of True the Vote volunteers.
"Verifying" the Recall
Since early February, groups involved in the "Verify the Recall" effort have been recruiting volunteers from around the country to enter the Wisconsin recall petitions into a massive online database. "Verify the Recall" is a joint project between the Houston-based nonprofit "True the Vote" (a project of the Texas Tea Party group King Street Patriots) and the Wisconsin Tea Party groups Grandsons of Liberty and We The People of the Republic.
On Tuesday, February 28, Governor Walker declined to officially challenge a single signature on the petitions calling for his recall, instead requesting that the Government Accountability Board incorporate the "Verify the Recall" findings. Walker only referred to the involvement of the Wisconsin groups in his filing with the Board, perhaps to downplay the involvement of the King Street Patriots and their True the Vote project, which have been accused of a variety of voter suppression tactics.
The "data" put forward by the groups involved in Verify the Recall has served as fodder for right-wing media outlets to claim the recall petition collection efforts were riddled with problems, if not outright fraud. Evidence suggests the claims don't stand up to scrutiny.
A Look At the Data
The Texas-based "True the Vote" analyzed and released the results. Their full set of data is available here.
True the Vote states that volunteers from around the U.S. entered approximately 820,000 of the recall signatures into a database developed by True the Vote, and their analysis showed that only 534,685 recall signatures are eligible, almost 6,000 short of the required 540,000 mark. Their executive summary states they only processed 138,203 of the total 152,508 petitions submitted -- meaning over 14,305 pages were never entered. True the Vote boasts in their summary that each signature line was entered an average of 2.67 times. It is not known why they entered names and signatures nearly three times each into the database but failed to input the complete data set.
The group claims that less than the necessary 540,000 signatures are eligible "based on data available." According to their summary, out of the nearly 820,000 signatures reviewed, 55,608 were deemed "ineligible" and an additional 228,940 signatures required "further investigation," leaving only 534,685 eligible.
Their assumption appears to be that every single one of the 228,940 signatures they flagged "for further investigation" will turn out to in fact be ineligible. They are also assuming that the over 55,608 signatures they deemed "ineligible" would not be counted under Wisconsin law. They are further assuming that every signature on the 14,305 pages they never counted is invalid.
Do these claims stand up under scrutiny?
"Ineligible" Signatures Appear Valid
True the Vote says around 4,700 volunteers entered the data from scanned PDFs of the handwritten recall petitions into a database. They claimed that volunteers entered signatures from each page, after which True the Vote used its "proprietary software program to examine each signature for eligibility."
A cursory review of signatures that True the Vote considers "ineligible" strongly suggests they are not counting legitimate petitions. The following examples are not isolated -- many, many similar mistakes were quickly found in the True the Vote data set:
- True the Vote discounts the signature of Mary Babiash (page 980) because she added the state abbreviation "WI" to her zip code. Her address is otherwise correct.
- The group calls Clifford Winkleman's signature (see page 3) ineligible because it has a "bad sign date." The date section on his petition is completed, but it looks like he pushed hard when he wrote the "10" in "01/10/2012." Linda Winkleman, who lives at the same address, signed below him, and also on 01/10/2012.
- The group would not count Joshua Epps' signature (see page 250) because he forgot to add the year when he dated his otherwise-valid signature.
- The signature from Tyrell Luebkes (see page 983) would not be counted because he entered his city in the "street address" section, and vice versa.
- They would not count Cheryl L Koch's signature (see page 497), saying she had a "bad sign date" of 1/91/12 because of a stray pen stroke behind the "9" on the correct sign date: 1/9/12
The Government Accountability Board told CMD that administrative rules require that all signatures be approached with a "presumption of validity," and state law requires a review of each petition "on its face." This means they would approach errors like the ones noted above with a presumption that the signature is valid, and would look at it in context -- for example, a valid street address written in the "city" section, and a valid city written in the "street address" section, would likely not disqualify the petition.
It does not appear that True the Vote and its Wisconsin Tea Party partners conducted their "independent" review by treating each petition with a presumption of validity and giving each signature an overall facial review, as required by Wisconsin state law and administrative rules.
True the Vote appeared to mark other signatures "ineligible" because of data entry errors on the part of True the Vote volunteers.
- True the Vote considers Heath Beacher's signature (see page 497) ineligible because "1/6/ 2012" (note space) was entered into the database, causing the software to mark it with a "bad sign date." The date on the original, handwritten petition is legible and valid. This data entry error is enough to invalidate her signature.
- Keith Iverson's signature (see page 259) is given a "bad sign date" of "Dec 2, 2011," apparently because the volunteer entering the information into the True the Vote database wrote "Dec." rather than "12." This flags his signature as "Invalid."
- Kelly Ullrick signed a recall petition with her full name, but the True the Vote volunteer entering her into the database (see page 984) failed to include her last name. The software tagged this as an "incomplete record," and thus ineligible, due to a missing last name, even though her last name is clearly visible on the original petition.
- Similarly, Alexandra Aulisi's signature (see page 9) is ineligible because of a "bad sign date," after the volunteer entering data wrote the letters "ll" rather than the numbers "11" for "11/15/ll" .
- Meghan Walsh's signature (see page 168) is deemed invalid for a "bad sign date," because the True the Vote volunteer entered "!!/!^/!!" instead of 11/11/2011.
- True the Vote considers Jocelyn Tilsen's signature (see page 2) ineligible as a result of a "bad sign date," because one of their volunteers entered "1/1O/12" (note O) instead of 1/10/12.
This is not a case of a few isolated examples being used to refute a much larger set of data. These examples were all identified after a very quick review of the results on the True the Vote website, and very similar errors appear to mark the rest of the group's "findings." Signatures marked "ineligible" for a "bad sign date" appear perfectly admissible. Despite True the Vote's claims that "each signature record was inspected 2.67 times," even a very cursory review should have caught these errors.
Review the data for yourself here.
Many Signatures Tagged for "Further Investigation" Appear Valid
Even if the 55,608 signatures True the Vote deemed "ineligible" with questionable methodology were not counted, it would have little impact, as hundreds of thousands would need to be struck to prevent a recall.
The main reason True the Vote asserts the recall campaign was a failure is because of 228,940 signatures they marked "for further investigation." Only after discounting all of these signatures were they able to claim that the recall campaign did not reach the requisite 540,000 signatures. The group made this claim without ever asserting that the signatures requiring "further investigation" should actually be discarded. A review of the signatures apparently flagged "for further investigation" in their report reveals many valid signatures.
True the Vote says the signatures marked "for further investigation" are those "that were partially marked through, illegible, possibly false, mismatched, or otherwise compromised." In their data set, it appears that signatures marked as "questionable" are those True the Vote believes require further review. Browsing through the entries deemed "questionable," it is difficult to believe any of these signatures would be struck.
Some recall signatures appear to be deemed "questionable" for imperfect handwriting (See: signature from Kristie Wherritt page 9010). Some appear to be flagged for date corrections. (See: signature from Chandler Charles page 9151). Some appear perfect in all respects (See: signature of James Schneider page 9002, signature of Brandon Kohl, page 9151).
It seems very hard to believe these signatures would actually be deemed ineligible under Wisconsin law, or under a fair, genuinely nonpartisan review process. Again, these are not isolated examples, but appear very similar to errors in the rest of the group's "findings."
Skewing the Vote
One of True the Vote's major claims is that "Donald Duck" signed a recall petition. But it is clear that anyone signing Donald Duck is not a friend of the recall effort.
True the Vote says their "involvement in the petition review is simply to help uphold the integrity of the process." But their misleading assertions, inaccurate data, and dishonest framing do little more than undermine and cast doubt on the process they claim to uphold.