Monday, December 15, 2014

WisGOP doesn't want to fix GAB flaws- they want to rig it

In Wisconsin’s right-wing world, Friday’s release of the Legislative Audit Bureau’s report on the state’s Government Accountability Board is the documentation they need to defang and deform reform the agency, amid right-wing claims the agency is not doing its job in running elections fairly. And to a point, I agree, the GAB isn’t doing a good enough job. But the reasons why I think that probably aren’t the same as the righties- because the audit on GAB clearly shows it to be an underfunded overseer of elections and campaigns, and it needs more resources and staffing to carry out its job.

Among other problems, the LAB notes that the GAB wasn’t following up on violations on campaign finance disclosures and other related election laws.
In overseeing campaign finance, lobbying, and code of ethics laws, statutes allow GAB to assess penalties for various violations. In February 2008, GAB approved a schedule indicating the penalties staff are to assess for various statutory violations, including campaign finance reports that were filed late. We found that staff developed a manual that specified penalty amounts that differed from those in GAB’s schedule. GAB did not approve this manual. From FY 2010-11 through FY 2012-13, staff did not assess penalties for 655 of 674 reports that were late and should have resulted in penalties under the staff’s manual. All 19 penalties that staff did assess were for amounts inconsistent with GAB’s penalty schedule and the staff’s manual.

Staff indicated that they focused on obtaining compliance with statutory requirements, rather than assessing penalties for statutory violations. Staff were unable to provide us with complete information on penalties assessed for violations of campaign contribution limits, or on the number of penalties assessed for violations of lobbying laws, the amounts assessed, or why penalties were sometimes not assessed or were waived even though violations had occurred.

Staff did not regularly update GAB with complete information on efforts they took to enforce campaign finance, lobbying, and code of ethics laws. For example, staff did not regularly update GAB on the extent to which they assessed penalties for violations of these laws, the amounts assessed, and the amounts paid. However, staff did regularly update GAB on the extent to which state officials and employees did not file statements of economic interests on time.
And even in the handful of cases where organizations and candidates were penalized for breaking these rules, the amount of the fine was miniscule- $2,775 total for the 19 violations that occurred between 2010 and 2012. The GAB's toothless enforcement and small amount of fines makes it a worthwhile gamble to flout campaign finance limits and hide donation information, since most violations apparently will not be dealt with, and any prosecution and fines that do take place usually won’t happen until well after the elections (kind of like how the John Doe investigation has been stalled by legal maneuvers). If that’s the way things are being run, why not cheat and hide the sources of money from the GAB and the public?

In addition, the LAB says 119 campaign finance reports were missing when they should have been required, and added that GAB staff would often stop requesting information if a candidate or entity wouldn’t respond, especially if that candidate didn’t win. With that in mind, what’s stopping a shadowy group from dropping a ton of money on ads or other election-related activities at a key moment, and then slinking away after the election with no trail of who these people are and why they would be interested in these elections. Which is exactly what the John Doe targets and related right-wing oligarchs want to do- to spend as much money as they want and conceal the source of those funds, so the people don’t know who’s pulling the puppet strings.

The GAB was apparently aware of these problems, and asked for funding to hire enough staff to handle these concerns. But Governor Scott Walker and the WisGOP Legislature didn’t feel like providing the resources that GAB said they needed to adequately do their job. Makes you wonder why, doesn’t it? As LAB’s report notes
GAB has included requests for additional staff in each of its last three biennial budget requests. In its 2011-13 Biennial Budget Request, it requested to convert 21.00 federally funded project positions into permanent GPR-funded positions, but this request was not included in the Governor’s Biennial Budget Proposal. In its 2013-15 Biennial Budget Request, GAB requested six new GPR-funded positions for its Elections Division, but this request was not included in the Governor’s Biennial Budget Proposal. In its 2015-17 Biennial Budget Request, GAB requested to convert 22.0 federally funded project positions into permanent federally funded positions, the costs of which GAB’s staff indicated can be covered by existing federal revenue until FY 2016-17. Thereafter, another funding source would need to be identified to fund these positions. The Biennial Budget Request indicates that the loss of these 22.0 positions would impair the ability of GAB’s staff to fulfill certain statutorily required duties, such as overseeing election administration. For example, all staff who train local election officials are currently in federally funded project positions.
You can bet the real WisGOP plan is to defund GAB even further, to allow even more sketchiness to slip by, and allow for more rigging of our campaign finance system in favor of the rich and powerful. It’ll work even better if the GOP is able to “pack” the GAB with hacks who will side with pro-Republican interests, to destroy any semblance of independence and upholding of ethics that may exist within the GAB.

In contrast to the major flaws in enforcing campaign finance and ethics rules, Wisconsin’s elections seemed to run fairly smoothly. From GAB’s own report (see Page 60 of the packet for this week’s meeting), it seems like the biggest problems were not that voting requirements were ignored on Election Day (unlike what WisGOP and AM radio will tell you), but instead that a small minority of poll workers are being too restrictive when it comes to letting people vote. This is particularly true of people who had already registered ahead of November 4.
•There were several reports of inspectors requiring registered voters to provide proof of residence, and requiring registering voters to produce multiple proof of residence documents. (A municipal clerk stated that a TV station in the Brown County area was reporting that more than one type of proof of residence was required, which may explain the occurrences in that area, but does not explain the reports of this activity in other parts of the state.)

• There was only one confirmed report of inspectors requiring photo ID. The clerk confirmed she had instructed her inspectors to do this because she was not aware that the photo ID requirement was not in effect for the General Election. (#headdesk)

•After the polls closed on Election Night, the City of Stoughton Clerk and Election Inspectors reviewed the voting equipment results tapes and noticed there were only 16 votes recorded for the City of Stoughton “Move to Amend” advisory referendum. The City Clerk immediately contacted the Dane County Clerk’s office and G.A.B. Following G.A.B. staff’s recommendation, a hand count of the votes cast for the referendum was conducted at the Municipal Board of Canvassers (MBOC) meeting on Monday, November 10, 2014. The results of the hand count revealed that the referendum passed 4,440 to 992, and the referendum results were certified by the City of Stoughton municipal board of canvassers.

Further investigation exposed a coding error on the ballots for the municipal referendum. After reviewing the Public Test tapes and test deck after the election, it was found that the coding problem was not caught at the time of the Public Test. Measures have been put into place to help prevent this from happening again in the future.
What might be more concerning is the fact that several types of election equipment were not audited for several years after the election had taken place (noted on pages 49-51 of the audit’s PDF), meaning the horse was already out of the barn if there was any chicanery going on that allowed vote totals to be misreported. The audit says that the error rates for election equipment were within the acceptable federal standard, but the fact that these audits weren’t taking place until well after elections and the “winner” had taken office is worrysome- and a big reason why seems to be underfunding of the GAB.

Likewise, our local municipalities also seem to be underfunded when it comes to properly running elections. Look at this passage in the LAB’s audit.
In December 2013, GAB’s staff surveyed county clerks and received responses pertaining to1,231 municipalities, including 649 municipalities that reported using electronic voting equipment. County clerks reported that 325 of the 649 municipalities (50.1 percent) used equipment at least ten years old, and that 260 municipalities (40.1 percent) used equipment that had been approved by the former State Elections Board under 1990 federal standards that have since been superseded. GAB’s staff indicated that although some municipal clerks are concerned that older equipment is more likely to cease operating, the cost to purchase new equipment and train local election officials to use it has meant that some older equipment has not been replaced. In addition, staff indicated that some clerks are concerned that new equipment may not integrate with existing equipment or provide the desired functionality.
Given that a lack of time and resources to adequately do the job of regulating and enforcing elections and campaigns seems to be the biggest problem in the GAB, maybe we should worry about taking care of those duties before we start blowing up its board and structure. Just a thought.

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