Elections commission split on observers' polling place rights

NOW: Elections commission split on observers’ polling place rights

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The public has the right to observe elections, but how far those rights extend was a subject of debate Thursday for the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC.) The discussion -- and disagreement -- came less than seven months before voters in Wisconsin will cast ballots for the 2024 spring election, which includes the presidential primary. 

The six-member elections commission, which is tasked with establishing guidance for how clerks should run elections in their communities, debated just how much access election observers should have at a polling place.

Currently, only media are allowed to record video and take pictures at a polling place. State law once defined media as newspapers, periodicals, radio stations and television stations. 

However, that statute no longer exists, and with advent the modern-day internet-based outlets, the commission debated whether it should create a definition of media.

Mark Thomsen, a Democratic appointee, noted WEC was sued by conservatives after the 2020 election in cases that challenged the commission's guidance on grounds it was dealing with areas uncovered by state law. A high-profile example was the state Supreme Court ruling absentee drop boxes are illegal.

"Frankly, I don't think we should have a difference [between observers and media] until the legislature weighs in on it 'cause I think the legislature should weigh in on it," Thomsen said.

Vice Chair Bob Spindell, a Republican appointee, said he believed the commission should draw a distinction between media and observers, defining media in the process.

"We just have to make the distinction of what are legitimate media and what isn't," Spindell said. "So, I disagree that we shouldn't come up with sort of policy. I think it's our responsibility to do that."

Commissioners were divided over whether their eventual guidance should set different standards for media and observers, and whether anyone should have the right to record video inside a polling place until the legislature defines who is and is not media.

"We're writing a policy for observers," Marge Bostelmann, a Republican appointee, said. "Why are we including the media into that? Why are we not looking at the media as a separate entity versus the observers?"

Another area of disagreement was how to define confidentiality with regard to when observers can challenge what type of ID a voter provides to a clerk.

Spindell and Chair Don Millis, a Republican appointee, supported guidance stating the type of ID a voter presented is not confidential.

Thomsen and Ann Jacobs, a Democratic appointee, said that could lead to overzealous observers prying into voters' personal information at polling places.

"If I show up with a passport versus a driver's license, all we're saying is that fact is not a confidential fact," Millis said. "You can observe it."

"How do you observe it?" Jacobs countered? "How do you look at Jim's phone if it's got a bank statement [without risking the breach of personal information]?"

The commission did not vote on any of the observer-related issues Thursday, but noted this topic will need further discussion ahead of the 2024 election cycle.

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