Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

Elections Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen Tuesday blamed Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign for the spike in 17-year-olds voting illegally in the April 2016 primaries.

But he later softened his criticism during Tuesday’s commission meeting after agency staff said it didn’t fully investigate whether it was social media posts from Sanders or others that contributed to the issue. The commission says a large number of students thought they could vote in the primaries as long as they turned 18 by the November general, and though poll workers turned most away, they let some 17-year-olds vote.

The commission’s meeting included a discussion of a new agency report to the Legislature that found at least 60 such cases, though it’s unclear whether local DAs filed charges.

The report also highlighted other cases of potential voter fraud or irregularities, including at least 16 cases of people voting twice in the same election or felons voting despite being under Department of Corrections supervision.

The draft report partly attributed the rise in 17-year-olds voting illegally to “some political campaigns” spreading false information on social media. But it didn’t specify which campaigns were responsible or provide examples of posts.

Thomsen, a Dem appointee, said this morning the Sanders campaign “blurred the differences between” laws in different states. In pushing 17-year-olds to vote in states where that’s allowed, the campaign didn’t clarify Wisconsin wasn’t one of those states, he said.

But Thomsen later offered a change to the report removing the language blaming “some political campaigns,” saying without clear examples that language is “completely useless.” Commissioners approved tweaking that language to generally say information on social media was inaccurate.

Nathan Judnic, a commission attorney, said the now-defunct Government Accountability Board got many inquiries on the issue. In some cases, people said they saw Sanders-related posts, but that’s anecdotal evidence and the commission didn’t look up specific posts to determine what caused those calls, Judnic said.

Commissioner Steve King, a GOP appointee, said that amounted to enough documentation that the Sanders campaign was responsible.

But Commissioner Ann Jacobs, a Dem appointee, said it’s hard to pin down whether something that was originally true got transmitted in “eight different ways” by Sanders supporters or Facebook pages backing him.

“I know I saw that meme 100 times,” she said. “I don’t know that it was a campaign-generated thing. That’s the difference.”

Judnic, the commission attorney, also noted the teenagers didn’t intend to commit voter fraud and that the harshest penalties some might’ve gotten were deferred prosecution agreements or a “strongly-worded letter” from the DA. But it’s unclear what happened in each of those cases since the local DAs aren’t required to report to the agency what steps they took. Thomsen told reporters that’s something he’d like to see changed.

David Lasee, the Brown County district attorney, said yesterday he decided against pressing charges after the sheriff’s office interviewed the nine students in his county.

The Sanders campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Thomsen also said the agency will evaluate whether it needs to step up training of poll workers after some let 17-year-olds vote.

Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney said most of those votes were counted and pointed to a memo clerks received three days after the April 5 election flagging the issue.

The memo said most 17-year-olds “were properly turned away without voting” but some weren’t. The memo also said there’s “no good solution” once an illegitimate ballot enters the mix and directed clerks to not remove the votes unless the ballots in question “can be clearly identified,” such as those that were challenged on Election Day.

Andrea Kaminski, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin’s executive director, told commissioners the issue shows “we do need better training” for election officials and better voter education.

Jacobs suggested the commissioner needs to “be more aggressive in our outreach.” Thomsen, meanwhile, said the commission will take a look at communication and training and also noted the agency’s request for additional staff would help address those issues.
See the draft report (starts on p. 95): http://elections.wi.gov/sites/default/files/event/261/tuesday_march_14_2017_complete_meeting_materials__23379.pdf

See the April memo: http://elections.wi.gov/node/3926

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