Wisconsin has become one of the most watched battleground states in the country, and forces on both the Democratic and Republican sides have activated their field operations and get-out-the-vote, or GOTV, efforts to woo registered Independent and undecided likely voters. Democrats have been hoping to turn this traditionally red state into a purple or possibly even blue one this year. But just before polls opened last Tuesday for Wisconsin's general assembly primary, numerous, unconfirmed allegations began to surface of a behind-the-scenes effort by the McCain-Palin campaign to manipulate the vote totals in Wisconsin and other key states this November.
On the Monday night before the primary, thousands of Wisconsin registered Independents and voters who have re-registered in the last year received absentee ballot applications enclosed in McCain / Palin direct mail pieces. The pre-printed, re-mailable absentee ballot applications appeared to be customized to the recipient's mailing address, with the addressee's local election office already on the form. Such mailers have been a tool for political campaigns, labor unions, GOTV interest organizations, and state and county election offices for a number of years. Other states reportedly saw similar mailings hit mailboxes, possibly totaling in the millions.
On the surface, the mailings appear to be a legal GOTV effort to re-register targeted recipients for the November 4 general election. But reports in the blogosphere, progressive media, and by other individual sources allege that the forms could instead be part of a larger effort to purposefully manipulate voter registrations in Wisconsin and possibly nationwide. The mailers, if true, may be a type of voter fraud because if someone receives an absentee ballot but does not send it in, he or she cannot go to the polls and vote on election day. The allegations imply that the McCain campaign is sending absentee ballots to people in the hopes that they will not send them in and when they try to vote in person will be turned away.
On Thursday's and Friday's nationally-broadcast Thom Hartmann Show, which airs on Air America Radio Network and streamed online, guest host Lee Rayburn of AAR affiliate The Mic 92.1 FM in Sun Prairie, Wisc., broke the story about the mailings and fielded numerous calls from listeners echoing their concerns about them.
In Wisconsin, the core center of government, the state capitol of Madison, is notoriously liberal. And Milwaukee, the economic center along Lake Michigan, tends to lean left. However, over the last three decades the rest of the state, proud of its independence, its agricultural and green technology industries, and religious conservatism, has proven to be moderate-to-conservative, primarily voting so-called red most of the time. In the last 12 years Wisconsin also has had its share of alleged voting irregularities, although investigations into the allegations have not yet been aggressively pursued by the state assembly or attorney general's offices.
This year, however, may be different. As the economic policies of George Bush have played out, and 3000-plus Wisconsin National Guard reservists were called up last weekend to deploy to Iraq this fall, the state's residents seem to have shifted their opinions of the Republican Party, and the presidential and vice presidential contests. As a result, Wisconsinites are scrutinizing every angle of electing their public officials at a level that has not been seen before. Members of the military who are deployed abroad, by far the largest group of absentee voters, are being courted particularly heavily by the political parties, as dissension in the ranks has swung both political contributions and absentee registrations towards the Democrats and away from Republicans in many states.
Direct mail campaigns containing absentee ballot applications from political parties and campaigns targeted at registered Independents are not new. Wisconsin is an Independent stronghold due to the popularity of Independent U.S. Senator Herb Kohl. Mail campaigns also affect the local and statewide races by activating those potential swing votes. Democrats have been active too, coordinating GOTV efforts for contested Wisconsin General Assembly seats with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU distributed direct mail pieces to thousands of households on behalf of their endorsed candidates to likely voters in Wisconsin and other states. In Wisconsin both direct mail campaigns hit mailboxes on or before Monday night, September 8, just in time for Tuesday's primary activities. The SEIU mailers did not contain absentee ballot applications, nor did they include endorsements of the national parties or the Obama-Biden campaigns.
McCain's political pitch is targeted squarely at pro-life conservatives. The headline, "A faith that sustains me...," leads to a main story starting with his POW experience in Vietnam, his adoption (with wife Cindy) of a little girl from Mother Theresa's orphanage, and delivers the pro-life position to the reader right between the eyes.
Quoted McCain lines from one of the mailers include these:
"My faith in God sustained me, protected me and gave me the strength to endure."
"That's why I have consistently fought to defend the right to life and the rights of the unborn."
"That's why Cindy and I have worked to promote adoption here and around the world as an alternative to abortion, including adopting our own daughter from Mother Theresa's orphanage in Bangladesh."
"And that's why I will appoint judges that respect the values and protect the rights established in our Constitution, faithfully applying the law without legislating from the bench."
Local party officials and labor union organizers are mixed on the effect the national efforts will have on the races at the local level, and on the results in November. Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District Democratic Party Chairman Peter Rickman, an experienced political operative and labor organizer for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), indicated in a Thursday phone interview that the national campaigns are prioritizing their efforts in Wisconsin towards GOTV efforts, but that more statewide and local media buys would be necessary to sway the voters in his district. Rickman insisted that the local candidates and parties were more focused on winning the Wisconsin General Assembly for Democrats, because local politics, he said, is where "real governing happens," and was pessimistic on whether the Obama campaign had done enough to support the entire ticket in an effort to spur the kind of change Obama spoke about in his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech.
"They're focused on their guy and getting him elected, and that's great, but the Obama Campaign could do a lot more to help out in local and statewide races, supporting the whole ticket," Rickman said. "If they really want to make change happen, it's going to have to be at the grassroots level, and although they have raised a lot of individual contributions and support from the grassroots, I haven't seen much of that money coming back in the way of paid media." Rickman did say, however, that the Obama-Biden Campaign and other national organizations are mobilizing large numbers of volunteers and paid staffers in his state and others to bolster GOTV efforts, which would go a long way to insure that likely voters are delivered on November 4.
Wisconsin Republican Party officials at the state and county levels in several areas were contacted for this report, but numerous requests for comment about the allegations surrounding the McCain-Palin mailings went unanswered. Democratic officials, including Rickman and Dane County Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Bigelow, did not mention the absentee ballot allegations in their respective interviews, but have been contacted for follow-up on this story. Efforts to contact state election officials about the allegations are still ongoing, but at press time, requests for comment have yet to be answered.
Follow Scott Foval on Twitter: www.twitter.com/scottfoval