Wisconsin DOJ probes voter fraud stunt as election officials debate absentee rules


MADISON, Wis. — With a few clicks of a mouse this week, a conservative activist sent Wisconsin’s elections apparatus into disarray ahead of the Aug. 9 primary.

Harry Wait of Dover, Wis., said he requested absentee ballots in the names of two high-profile politicians be sent to his own address to try to show voter fraud is easy to perform. He contacted local authorities Wednesday to detail what he had done and demand immediate changes, then told as many people as he could about what he considers a serious vulnerability.

The stunt showed that one person and a computer or smartphone could jolt the state’s elections system and forced election officials to weigh making changes to the state’s absentee voting procedures — and whether doing so would make it harder to vote.

It also drew the attention of law enforcement. A spokeswoman for Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (D) announced Friday his office was investigating the matter after consulting with Racine County’s top prosecutor.

The state elections commission — a body evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans — held an emergency meeting Thursday night to discuss what to do. The Republican chairman, Don Millis, asked whether changes could or should be made to the state’s online elections portal, MyVote Wisconsin.

Millis said he was worried Wait’s fraudulent ballot requests could lead others to do the same. The commissioners don’t have an easy way to prevent that, other than by telling the public that would-be fraudsters will quickly be caught and prosecuted.

MyVote allows anyone to look up a voter using their name and birth date. The person can then request an absentee ballot under that person’s name and have it sent anywhere — a function that’s in place so that voters who are temporarily away from home have a way to vote.

Wait said he logged onto MyVote Wisconsin on Tuesday and entered the names and birth dates of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) and Racine Mayor Cory Mason (D) — two officials with whom he has repeatedly clashed, especially on voting-related issues. Posing as them, he asked to have their ballots sent to his own home.

Wait said he received Mason’s ballot on Friday, three days after requesting it, and he provided a photo of it. He said he planned to return it to the city clerk unopened.

Most voters must provide a copy of a photo ID the first time they request an absentee ballot. Under state law, voters who say they are indefinitely confined to their homes because of age or disability do not have to provide an ID. Wait marked himself as indefinitely confined.

Requesting a ballot through MyVote generates an email to the voter’s municipal clerk. The clerk can check with the voter to ensure the request is legitimate and makes the final call on whether to send a ballot.

Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said someone who engaged in such activities would likely be caught because the fraudulent request would be discovered when the real voter requested an absentee ballot or showed up the polls. Burden said he knows of no schemes similar to Wait’s.

He added that while elections systems aren’t perfect, there have been no signs of widespread fraud after numerous reviews of recent elections.

“There aren’t easy solutions,” Burden said. “Running an election is complicated and there are a lot of different needs that have to be satisfied. If the public expects perfection or policymakers expect perfection, they’re going to be disappointed. It’s not achievable.”

But with some supporters of former president Donald Trump clinging to the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen, Wait’s move could prompt others to engage in similar activities. That will force election officials to decide whether to change their practices, Burden said.

Commissioners said shutting down MyVote would do little if anything to prevent the kind of fraud Wait engaged in because state law allows voters to request absentee ballots by turning in a form in person, by mail or by email.

“There are those who want us to shut down MyVote for this purpose [of requesting absentee ballots], when all you’d have to do is to start sending out emails,” Millis said. “You can take the list that you’ve purchased and just send emails to clerks saying start sending out ballots. It would be easy — just as easy, perhaps easier, than doing it on MyVote.”

Voter fraud in Wisconsin and elsewhere is rare. Last year, the Wisconsin commission identified 41 instances of potential voter fraud from primaries and elections in late 2020 and early 2021 — a minuscule amount compared to the millions of votes cast.

The commission on Thursday voted to remind clerks they needed to tell prosecutors when they see signs of fraud. It also agreed to mail postcards to voters who had an absentee ballot sent to an address other than their home address. That mailing will go to about 4,000 voters, giving them a chance to contact authorities if they did not make a request for a ballot.

The commission was united on those votes, but Democrats said the main way to prevent future problems is to charge Wait. Some of them grew impatient with the discussion about the site and insisted the commission formally urge prosecutors to charge Wait.

“From what I’ve gleaned from the reports, Harry Wait has admitted to fraud. It seems to me the way to stop fraud is to prosecute fraud and not talk about weird issues,” said Mark Thomsen, a Democrat on the commission.

Millis, the chairman of the commission, said he wanted to eventually seek prosecution but first needed to learn more about what happened and which prosecutor was best suited to handle it.

Wait made the fraudulent requests for ballots after spending the last year and a half arguing the 2020 presidential election was rife with fraud. Joe Biden beat Trump by about 21,000 votes in Wisconsin and those results have been upheld by court rulings and independent reviews.

Vos last year hired former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to look into the election. Wait helped connect Gableman to other election skeptics and his brother, Gary Wait, served as an investigator for Gableman.

Democrats have decried Gableman’s efforts as a groundless attack on democracy, in part because he has sought to jail mayors and election officials who he claims aren’t cooperating with him. Wait, meanwhile, has argued Vos isn’t doing enough to address election integrity and has relentlessly attacked him. He’s assisting Vos’ opponent, Adam Steen, in the Aug. 9 primary.

Wait on Friday said he’d heard from people saying they planned to follow his lead and hoped they would overwhelm the state’s absentee voting system.

“I’m getting an awful lot of support but, you know, talk is cheap,” he said. “So if we start seeing people flooding MyVote with absentee voters, sending them all over the place, then that would be the kind of conduct I would hope to see so they actually fix what’s broken.”

Wait alerted Racine County District Attorney Patricia Hanson (R) and Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling to what he’d done in an email shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday. Later that morning, he emailed Schmaling to tell him he was at the county fair if he wanted to arrest him.

Schmaling initially reacted to the news in a Facebook post and made no mention of investigating Wait but called for the state to change its online voting portal.

Schmaling, who was the keynote speaker at a pro-Trump event in 2020, addressed the far-right Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association this month. There, he joked about beating former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) in a goat-milking contest and championed his efforts to criminally charge five Wisconsin election commissioners for how they conducted voting in nursing homes. So far, his call for charges has gone unheeded.

Wait said he talked to Schmaling on Wednesday, a day before the district attorney announced she had asked Schmaling to conduct an investigation into what Wait had done. Wait said Schmaling thanked him for exposing problems with the state’s absentee voting system and told him, “Hell no,” when Wait asked him if he would arrest him.

In a Facebook post, Schmaling’s office on Friday confirmed Wait’s account of their conversation but also said Schmaling told Wait he didn’t have to do what he’d done.

“Criminal arrests are not based upon late-night Emails and requests to be arrested,” the sheriff’s office wrote in the post.

“Sheriff Schmaling understands Wait’s passion and commitment to honest, open, and transparent government, especially as it pertains to elections; however, he never gave Wait permission or consent for Wait’s actions.”

By Friday, the attorney general had taken over the investigation. The move came less than 24 hours after Democrats on the elections commission demanded action.

“I’m astonished and outraged that he thinks this is something cute when what he is doing is committing crimes and bragging about it in an attempt to undermine our voting system,” said Ann Jacobs, a Democrat on the commission. “I appreciate the chair’s desire to be thoughtful but sometimes when people confess fully in the newspaper, we don’t really need to go into a lengthy analysis over it.”

Emma Brown contributed to this report.


Source: WP