[8/10/11: Now UPDATED with statement from the WI Government Accountability Board concerning the problem for Exit Pollsters in Waukesha County yesterday. See bottom of article for statement.]
The polls in Wisconsin closed moments ago. So far, so good in the state's unprecedented recall elections today, at least according to the bulk of media reports throughout the day. Turnout was reportedly very high, nearing or even exceeding rates from the 2008 Presidential election in some areas. "It's astronomically high," according to Matt Rothschild, Editor of The Progressive in Madison, WI, with whom I was just on air with on Santa Fe Public Radio's KSFR to discuss today's recalls.
The contests in six state Senate districts could mean removal from office for the GOP Senators facing recall today following their support of Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union agenda. If Democrats take three of those seats --- and hold onto the two Democrat seats up for recall next Tuesday, they would retake the majority in the Senate. The Assembly, the Senate and the Governor's office all went to Republicans in last November's wave election.
While reports of problems with electronic voting systems frequently don't come to light until after polls close --- sometimes days and even weeks later --- we've heard of very few problems so far at least. With most of the voters in the state today voting on hand-marked paper ballots, voters shouldn't get held up by malfunctioning machines. Even in cases where the op-scanners fail to work --- and that has been the case, reportedly, in at least one ward in Fond du Lac --- voters can vote and their ballots can be tallied later by a different computer.
That WI doesn't bother to check any of the op-scanned ballots by hand to assure the machines are tallying them correctly is a different problem entirely, but one we discussed in our item earlier today and, depending on what results look like tonight, may need to discuss again later.
But so far, so good today, as far we can tell, except for yet another problem with Exit Pollsters --- an echo of similar problems that occurred during the July primaries --- where again today they were blocked from doing their work at a polling place in Butler Village...in Waukesha County...
Deja Vu All Over Again
During the Democratic primary elections for the Wisconsin state Senate recalls last July, as we reported at the time, Exit Pollsters from the election watchdog group Election Defense Alliance (EDA) were disallowed from conducting their surveys inside the 100 feet barrier where "electioneering" is specifically disallowed by state law.
Exit Pollsters, however, according to Wisconsin statutes, are allowed to conduct their work as close as 10 feet from the polling place exit, as needed to get the high participation rate required for such polls. Such clearance for exit polling is even explained on the website of the WI Government Accountability Board (G.A.B.), the state's top election authority.
When the problem occurred in July, and election officials told pollsters they had to remain outside the 100 ft. perimeter, Reid Magney, a spokesman for the G.A.B. told The BRAD BLOG that they didn't consider EDA's Exit Polls to be legitimate because of the specific way they conduct their polls. EDA's method is to hand a piece of paper with the names of all candidates on it, so the voter can select who they had chosen to vote for and then deposit it into a box. The theory is that voters are more likely to be honest in their responses if they don't have to tell the pollster directly who they voted for.
Despite having permission in advance to conduct the polls last July, the G.A.B. rescinded that permission claiming they didn't understand in advance the type of polls EDA was to conduct, and considered that to be "electioneering" because the papers used had the names of the candidates (all of the candidates mind you) on them within the 100 ft. perimeter.
"No one is permitted to distribute any literature within 100 feet that contains the names of any candidate on the ballot that day. That is electioneering, and could be confusing to voters," Magney told us. "Regular exit pollsters conduct their business by interviewing voters and recording the answers themselves."
Later, after some checking, Magney retracted that, explaining, "I think they're done both ways. We've just recently received some information about exit polls being done in writing, so I'm feeling a bit unsure of what I wrote earlier."
Nonetheless, by then it was too late and the pollsters were unable to collect the data required for their polls from the 100 ft. perimeter they were required to stay out of.
Today, things are going a bit better for EDA's pollsters, in all but one polling site where the volunteers were met by police first thing this morning.
EDA's National Chairperson, Sally Castleman said that this time around, things were going wel, but for what happened at a polling site in the Village of Butler. She says that when their group of pollsters arrived at the opening of polls at 7am, the police "seemed to be kind of lying in wait."
The volunteer pollsters were told by the officers that they would not be allowed to poll within 100 feet, which, as Jonathon Simon, EDA's Executive Director told us, "that would put them across the street" from the polling place."
Butler Village is in Waukesha County, where the notorious GOP activist and County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus will preside over the final electronic tabulation tonight.
According to Castleman, the police said that the Village of Butler had gotten a "special directive from the League of Wisconsin Municipalities," to keep them outside of the 100 foot perimeter. Castleman notes that the League "is not even an authoritative body and certainly has no jurisdiction over elections."
It took a number of hours to hear back from the G.A.B. and accommodations were finally made to allow the pollsters to do their work some 30 feet away from the exit.
"It was negotiated out," said Simon, "but from a practical standpoint, by the time it was negotiated out, those numbers are gonna be useless."
"In order for a high participation polling place exit poll to work, you basically have to be right up where the voters are coming out before them atomize," explained Simon. "If you're 30 or 40 feet away after they disburse, you're not gonna get a high participation rate."
"Our poll is based on very very high participation rate," he said. "Once you miss 20% of the day, you might as well fold up shop. But they didn't, because it's an important exercise, so they carried on."
Castleman says, "The long and short of it is, where they ended up was not gonna be effective. But the polling leader kept her calm and figured they should continue. It would be a good education for the volunteers and for the voters and they were learning why they would even need an exit poll. In the long run, it was really a good education for the officials and for the poll workers, because this is a very needed thing for citizens to do, and it's what the regulations are."
With Wisconsin performing absolutely no post-election checks to determine, in any way, if computer tabulators correctly tally votes, Exit Polls are one of the only checks and balances against both manipulation and malfunction of the machines in the state, as made by Diebold, Sequoia, ES&S and other private companies with similarly flawed systems.
We queried the G.A.B.'s Magney for an explanation of what happened this time, but have yet to hear back. (See UPDATE below for Magney's statement.)
Castleman says that once they were able to reach someone at the G.A.B., "they basically went to bat for us this time."
According to Jason Stein at Milwaukee's Journal Sentinel, "Village Administrator Jesse Thyes said the exit poll takers were moved to the sidewalk for safety reasons and to provide a free flow of voters in and out of the village hall."
That was not the reasons explained by either Castleman and Simon, both of whom explained that before their crew had even gotten fully out of their car this morning, they were approached by the police and told they needed to stay away from the polling place.
According to Castleman, however, at all of the other sites where EDA conducted their work today, they had no problems at all and most voters "responded very positively" to the surveys.
UPDATE 8/10/11: G.A.B. spokesperson Reid Magney responded to our request for comment with the following statement:
As background, our staff communicated extensively with the Election Defense Alliance organization following the July primary elections regarding its exit polls. We educated the EDA about the rules for exit polls to avoid problems caused by the methods used by its volunteers and the fact that its exit poll resembled a sample ballot. The EDA agreed to make changes for its exit polling at the August elections and as far as we know things went much more smoothly for its volunteers yesterday, with one exception.
Throughout the day August 9, we had a number of conversations with the EDA and the Village of Butler regarding the placement of the individuals conducting the exit poll, and we attempted to mediate a solution to accommodate that polling, not to shut it down. We provided the Village with the letter which Director Kevin Kennedy issued to EDA on July 18 outlining the rules for all organizations conducting exit polls and our understanding of their process which would be used at the August elections. The Village Administrator had not previously seen this guidance and subsequently worked with EDA to try to find a suitable location for the EDA volunteers. The challenge at that particular location was that there was not much room available between the parking lot and the entrance to the Village Hall. The administrator was concerned about the pollsters' table blocking the pathway to the entrance and directed that the exit poll be set up on a public sidewalk which made it a challenge to direct voters to participate.
During the midafternoon, Director Kennedy was in the Milwaukee area visiting polling places. He spent more than an hour at the Butler polling place talking to both the EDA volunteers and the Butler election officials to explore other options. Director Kennedy did not attempt to shut down any exit polling, nor did any other G.A.B. staff member who spoke with the Village Administrator by phone.
Ultimately the municipality is responsible for conducting the election and if a party disagrees with a decision or action of a local election official a complaint may be filed with our office seeking a determination as to whether the municipality complied with the election laws. We had encouraged the EDA to inform our office or local clerks where they planned to conduct exit polls so these types of issues could be resolved ahead of time, but they declined to do so.
Let me know if you have questions.
Reid Magney, public information officer
Wisconsin Government Accountability Board
Jonathan Simon, Executive Director of Election Defense Alliance responds to Magney's statement below: