Democrats Accuse GOP Poll Observers of Election Day Voter Intimidation
Complaints surface in Racne that election monitors — many from out of state — confronted voters at local polling places during heated recall election.
As Racine County Republicans cry foul over a number of alleged voting irregularities in June 5 recall election, local Democrats have raised allegations of their own — saying GOP poll observers tried to intimidate voters and violated state laws at a number of polling places.
Complaints have surfaced in the media and blogs that Republican observers allegedly talked to voters and poll workers directly, and took photos and videos within polling places, which violates state law. They also followed get-out-the-vote vans around town and took photos of license plates, and followed one poll worker outside as she allegedly went door to door canvassing.
Racine Mayor John Dickert said the main issues with polling observers was that they were not keeping a barrier between themselves and poll workers, and observers raised their voices and talked to voters — instead of quietly monitoring the proceedings.
“My job is to allow everyone that has right to vote to vote,” said Dickert, a Democrat. “What we saw was observers not listening to the rules. They were supposed to stay six feet away from city workers, but they didn’t.”
Martin Pavilonis, spokesman for the Racine Police Department, said that on June 5 the number of election-related complaints was a bit higher than usual.
“People were definitely watching one another, but that’s only what I’ve seen from being a consumer of the media and that might have had something to do with what led to these increased calls,” he said. “It was obviously busier than it had been on a typical Election Day, but not to a point where we were questioning what we should do about it.”
"What we saw was observers not listening to the rules."
Dickert said he hoped that people would be more respectful.
“If we have problem, we should fix it,” he said. “But there are certain guidelines as an observer that people need to follow. When people are not following guidelines, and they are raising their voices, it adds stress to the poll workers and they already put in long hours.”
Voter Has Run-in with Illinois Official
Among those complaining is Racine resident Nicala Aiello, who filed a complaint with the state against Lake County, IL, Clerk Willard Helander, a Republican poll observer who Aiello said more than overstepped her bounds.
According to Aiello's account, she arrived at her polling place at about 7:10 a.m., admittedly wearing a "Recall Walker" button on her shirt. As she was checking in with poll workers, someone from across the room called to Aiello, telling her to take off her button.
"I turned to her and told her I wasn't going to take off my button because I was allowed to wear it since I wasn't talking to anyone and was going to leave as soon as I was done voting," she said.
But the woman — later identified as Helander — wouldn't let it go and kept insisting that as a lawyer, she knew what was legal and what wasn't and Aiello needed to take off her button.
"I told her that as an informed voter, I know my rights and that as an observer, she couldn't talk to me," Aiello continued. "At that point, she turned away from me and approached the chief poll inspector and started telling her to tell me take off my button."
After filling out her ballot, Aiello said Helander and the chief poll inspector followed her to the ballot machine, repeatedly calling, "Excuse me, ma'am."
"I really think they were going to try and take my ballot, but I just kept going," she said. "After my ballot was in the machine, Helander went over to the poll books and I think she copied down my information."
While the way she was treated was bad enough, Aiello said the way Helander and her partner — whose name Aiello never learned — made the poll workers nervous was almost worse.
"Poll workers have a hard enough job. They don't need that," she said.
Helander earlier said that it was Aiello who had “became belligerent” during the encounter.
Did Observer Try to Intimidate Voter?
Kelly Gallaher, a community organizer for Community For Change, said a poll observer from Kentucky talked to a poll worker at Festival Hall in Racine, saying that a voter lived in a vacant lot.
“But the poll watcher was from Kentucky…These challengers had no way of knowing where that voter lived, but she maintained that they lived in a vacant lot,” Gallaher said. “This was something that was being done to create intimidation.”
Gallaher also said there were two women that she knew of at Jefferson Lighthouse Elementary School who were told to go to different locations. Later, when they returned, the two women told them that the polling observers gave them incorrect information.
“They told them that to make them runaround,” she said. “They came back to Jefferson Lighthouse to vote, but they were initially told they needed to go to the polling place at Martin Luther King.”
Both of those women are neighbors of Aiello, one of whom Aiello helped to the polls late in the afternoon.
"She's older with health problems, so I helped get her to the school so she could cast her ballot," she said.
Aiello admitted she was a little nervous about returning to Jefferson Lighthouse after her own incident that morning, but her neighbor wanted to vote and needed the help. After they arrived and obtained a voter registration form, Aiello said, the neighbor needed some help filling out the form, so Aiello got permission from a poll worker to sit down with her neighbor.
"I never at any time filled out the form for my neighbor, I just walked her through it," she added. "She also needed help understanding the ballot and, again, I never touched her ballot or even held the pen for marking the ballot. I just showed her, in full view of everyone at an open table, how to make her choice. She went to the booth by herself."
Still, Aiello said Helander tried again to intimidate her: first by trying to get Aiello to sign something that she was told was a complaint and again when Aiello says Helander followed her out to her car and stood behind it while writing something down on a piece of paper.
"I guess she was jotting down my license plate number, but I don't know why she needed it. She already had all my information from the poll book," Aiello chuckled.
Republicans Say Observers Doing Their Job
But Republicans argue they were just trying to make sure the rules were being followed on Election Day.
Lou D’Abbraccio, a board member of Racine County GOP who coordinated many poll observers, said they were watching the polling places closely and saw a number of violations of electioneering.
“It was like a game of whack-a-mole,” he said. “You’d go and talk to polling inspector to get one, then another would pop up a few minutes later.”
D'Abbraccio said there was more than one group of poll observers, and it appears many of the complaints were about those who weren't from Racine County.
"With the people I trained, I gave them specific instructions not to talk to voters, and if they needed to, they could talk to the poll instructors," he said. "I also told them, you have to figure out which hill you want to die on. If someone is just wearing a button and they are voting that’s one thing, but if they are hanging around and wearing a T-shirt with a big message, then that’s another thing."
Out-of-state Observers Cause Some Problems
Among the outside organizations was True The Vote, a Texas-based group that sends election monitors all over the country.
"True The Vote came in and did their own training, and I was kind of upset about it," D'Abbraccio said. "I sat in some of that training and those people were out of state. It was clear that they didn’t a have full understanding of the law."
He acknowledged, however, that observer he trained were following the get-out-the-vote vans, which is not illegal. And we were following them because they were acting suspiciously."
Jane Witt, chair of the Racine County Democratic Party, said it seemed like observers were primarily concerned with polling locations in the inner city, where there are greater concentrations of voters of color who lean more blue than red.
"You don't hear about these incidents in Caledonia or Mount Pleasant," she said. "Instead, locations were targeted in the city, where there are more people with brown skin who typically vote in larger numbers for Democrats over Republicans. If they were so concerned, why weren't they also in the villages?"
Electioneering was only one of Republicans' concerns as they looked for voter registration issues.
Witt said Aiello filed a complaint with the state Government Accountability Board, but the Democratic Party has no plans to do so — at least for now.
"I don’t think a private citizen complaint would be effective," she said. "But things could change."
While D’Abbraccio said observers from outside groups were to blame for most the complaints about intimidation, he, too, got into a heated discussion with a poll worker after he challenged a voter who tried to register with a handwritten rent receipt. He admits he shouldn’t have talked to the poll worker, but he was frustrated that his challenge wasn’t taken seriously.
Witt said she can understand concern over a handwritten rent receipt, but in that case a provisional ballot should have provided.
"The resident still gets to vote, but then they have until the end of the week to produce better documentation that proves their residency," she said.