Milwaukee city officials, under pressure for their handling of the flood of same-day voter registrations in the last two presidential elections, have now formed a panel to investigate the issue. However, Greg Borokowski reports that the independence of the city panel leaves a lot to be desired:
Amid new questions about the Nov. 2 election in Milwaukee, a task force appointed by Mayor Tom Barrett to review problems and procedures will launch its efforts today.
Members will dig into an election that featured heavy turnout, huge demand for early voting, a GOP challenge to thousands of addresses and, based on a Journal Sentinel review of election-day “incident logs,” a general frenzy of activity across the city.
But the committee – consisting entirely of city officials – faces critics who question whether it will be able to conduct an impartial review.
As well they should; until the last moment, the panel consisted of seven members, all of which worked for the city and under the authority of Mayor Barrett, a Democrat whose administration has the responsibility for following Wisconsin law. Not only did he stock the panel with people who owe him their jobs, one of his selections for the panel will also provide key testimony. Lisa Artison, the executive director of the Election Commission, will find herself in the almost-unique position of judging her own testimony to the panel. (CQ readers will recall the issue of Jamie Gorelick serving on the 9/11 Commission while having large responsibility for constructing the “wall” that kept law-enforcement and intelligence agents from sharing information.)
Issues with Artison go back to before the election. In a November 1st article, the Journal-Sentinel noted that the Election Commission failed to process three-quarters of the city’s registration entries before Election Day, leaving 15,000 votes in limbo:
As the executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, it’s Artison’s job to ensure everything runs smoothly in today’s election.
Yet in recent weeks, the commission has been at the center of controversy, first over how many ballots it needed, then over whether newly registered voters were listing nonexistent addresses.
Mayor Tom Barrett has accused Republicans of stirring up those controversies to disrupt voting in the largely Democratic city.
On Monday, however, Barrett admitted Artison’s staff had not processed 15,000 to 20,000 voter registration cards from newly registered voters. Barrett didn’t learn about the backlog until Monday, when he ordered other city staffers into the election office in a last-minute push to get the job done before voters show up.
Artison had been a controversial nominee last summer for the position:
In July, the council confirmed Artison on a 9-6 vote, the closest margin of any Barrett nominee, with former Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt lobbying against her. Besides questions about her qualifications, observers wondered whether her job was a payoff for work by her and her husband, radio talk-show host Eric Von, on Barrett’s campaign against Pratt.
Artison has hardly acted like an agnostic on the presidential vote, either. She has asserted that nothing went wrong and that the critics have “an agenda at work” in their complaints. Any independent investigation of the Milwaukee vote should focus their attention on the competence and/or the potential malfeasance of Artison and her staff. Having Artison help investigate the matter makes clear the panel’s purpose — to mollify critics by slapping together a whitewash that will eventually tire out those who keep watch on the situation.
The last-moment addition of two people from the comptroller’s office makes little difference to the makeup of the nine-person panel if Artison remains on board — indeed, if the supermajority of the panel all report to Barrett, the die has been already cast. This is a last-ditch effort to head off a state investigation into voter fraud in Milwaukee. Let’s hope it doesn’t succeed.