In 1938, Kenosha, Wisconsin-born Orson Welles stoked widespread confusion and panic when he broadcast mock news reports of an extraterrestrial invasion, with his famous radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds convincing some listeners that Martians were attacking the earth. In 2012, another Kenosha native, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, is promoting similar confusion by attacking the integrity of Wisconsin's elections and stoking fears of "voter fraud" in advance of Tuesday's recall election. Does Wisconsin really have a history of "voter fraud," or are Priebus and other Republicans following in the footsteps of Welles and pulling a massive hoax?
With polls suggesting that Tuesday's recall election will be extremely close, Republican leaders and right-wing media outlets are claiming "voter fraud" is rampant in Wisconsin elections, apparently to cast doubt on a potential victory by Walker's Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in Tuesday's election.
On May 30, Priebus alleged rampant voter fraud and claimed Republican candidates "need to do a point or two better than where we think we need to be, to overcome it." Governor Walker made a nearly identical claim weeks earlier, telling the Weekly Standard that fraudulent votes account for "one or two points" in Wisconsin elections. For Priebus and Walker to be correct about fraud equaling "one or two points" in recent elections -- where 3 million people cast ballots -- there would need to have been between 30,000 and 60,000 fraudulent ballots.
"I'm always concerned about voter fraud," Priebus said. "I think it's been documented."
Actually, it has not.
In-depth investigations into election fraud in Wisconsin's 2004 and 2008 elections revealed that election fraud occurs at a rate of less than one-thousandths of a percent. Only 7 people were convicted of election fraud in 2004 and only 20 were charged in 2008.
GOP Election Investigation in 2008 Shows Just Two Cases of Double-Voting
In 2008, Wisconsin's Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen (the state co-chair of GOP presidential candidate John McCain's campaign) established an election fraud task force with Milwaukee's Democrat District Attorney John Chisholm. The task force soon expanded its focus beyond Milwaukee to investigate allegations of fraud in twelve Wisconsin counties. After an extended investigation, only 20 people were charged.
The majority of those charges did not involve "voter fraud" -- defined by the Brennan Center for Justice as a person casting a ballot "despite knowing that they are ineligible to vote, in an attempt to defraud the election system" -- but instead involved felons on parole or probation who said they did not know they were still prohibited from voting. Felon voting constitutes "election fraud" under Wisconsin statutes, but does not meet the more precise definition of "voter fraud."
Only two individuals were charged in 2008 with committing the kind of in-person "voter fraud" that stricter identification requirements might prevent. Six people were charged with voter registration misconduct.
2004 Report Embraced by Right-Wing; Mostly Identified Clerical Errors
A variety of irregularities in the 2004 elections led to media accounts suggesting widespread fraud. In February of 2008, the Milwaukee Police Department released a report on that election "with what appears to be a painstaking investigation of the facts," according to the Brennan Center for Justice, but including "policy recommendations offered with less care and disavowed by the Milwaukee Police Chief."
A Special Investigations Unit of the Milwaukee Police Department apparently authored the report without authorization, and though most observers believe the report's factual findings were thorough, the policy recommendations and statutory analysis went beyond the pay grade of the police officers who drafted it. "We're not the Department of Making Policy Recommendations," said Milwaukee's police chief at the time. "That's where this thing got out of control." The Milwaukee Police Department endorsed Walker for governor in 2010 and again in 2012.
Republicans across the country embraced the unauthorized report and its uninformed policy recommendations, with the Wall Street Journal's John Fund claiming that "Milwaukee police uncovered a problem, but politicians chose to ignore it."
But the Brennan Center's review of the report "showed that much of what had originally been identified as potential fraud was in fact due to clerical error."
According to the Brennan Center's analysis, there were allegedly 8,300 more ballots cast in Milwaukee than individuals processed, but the discrepancy was later attributed to administrative error. Of the 37,180 people in Milwaukee who were originally reported to have voted from invalid addresses, 31,500 actually just had problems with an apartment number. In other cases, data entry errors turned perfectly valid addresses into invalid ones. The rest of the allegedly invalid addresses were thrown out for lack of proof -- and in any case, voters would have had to show proof of residency in order to cast ballots.
A computer glitch in Milwaukee caused at least 314 voters to be listed twice on the rolls, and around 59 people were alleged to have voted twice -- but it turns out that most registered twice but voted only once. All the supposedly "dead voters" voted early with absentee ballots but died within two weeks of the election. One ballot was cast in the name of an individual who did not vote, but further investigation showed this was the result of error by a poll worker.
One vote was cast by a 17-year-old. Four individuals allegedly submitted false voter registration applications, and three were convicted. Like the 2008 investigation, most of the "election fraud" in 2004 involved voting by felons and resulted in just 7 convictions.
The most questionable election activities in 2004 involved employees of a 527 Political Action Committee who were campaigning in Wisconsin, but did not live there during the rest of the year, casting votes in Wisconsin because they met the residency requirement in place at the time. There is no evidence the campaign staffers voted twice.The authors of this report called this an "illegal organized attempt" at skewing election outcomes, but prosecutors did not pursue those particular cases because the campaign staffers met the statutory standard for residency.
The Brennan Center analysis identified a fraud rate of only .0002 percent in the 2004 elections, and none of the improper voting allegations would have been prevented by requiring photo ID at the polls.
Kenosha Pushes Back On Native Son
In his May 30 statement allegation that voter fraud accounts for "a point or two" in Wisconsin elections, Priebus also noted that "I'm always concerned about voter fraud, you know, being from Kenosha, and quite frankly having lived through seeing some of it happen."
Priebus' hometown newspaper, the Kenosha News, pushed back on this claim. The newspaper's editorial board wrote:
If Priebus has knowledge of voter fraud here, he should point to some evidence. Assistant District Attorney Richard Ginkowski has been following elections here and investigating complaints for 30 years. He doesn't know what Priebus is talking about. The county clerk, Mary Schuch-Krebs, doesn't know what Priebus is talking about. Face it. The voter fraud in Kenosha that Priebus is referring to does not exist.
Noting that "[Orson] Welles actually referred to Kenosha as the 'nasty little town' where he was born," the Kenosha News wrote "It looks like Reince Priebus has joined the Welles faction" in disparaging his hometown. Given the role of both Welles and Priebus in perpetuating myths and unfounded fears -- about an alien invasion and the spectre of voter fraud, respectively -- the two share more than just anti-Kenosha sentiments.