How We Helped Expand Petitioning Rights in Wisconsin
Several years ago while myself and several other Wisconsin activists were working on the recall of a City of Milwaukee Alderman, the recall effort was going on during a regularly scheduled election so we told the group collecting signatures to stand just outside of the polling locations and approach the voters as they were going in to vote. This seemed like a simple and easy way to gather signatures because all of those going in to vote were residents of the district of the alderman that we were attempting to recall.
Someone complained to the authorities and we were told that we had to leave because we were engaging in “electioneering” which is defined as campaigning, and is prohibited within 100 feet of the polling location. Rather than fight that battle right then and there, we decided to take the fight to the State of Wisconsin Election Board at a point later in time.
When we took our case to the State Elections Board, activist Chris Kliesmet (my colleague at Citizens for Responsible Government) made a very reasoned and passionate argument before the Elections Board that what we were doing was not electioneering but simply petitioning, because the person that we were petitioning for Recall was not even on the ballot on that day.What we were doing is the same thing that the national media does in Presidential elections when they conduct exit polls which allows them to call the election before the polls actually close.
We got a very favorable ruling from the State Elections Board (which you can read here) which allows us to petition just outside of the entrance doors to a polling location, not 100 feet away.
Yesterday, I had four recall efforts going on and I made sure that each of those groups had a copy of the Elections Board opinion and they had sufficient volunteers to man the polling locations. Yes, the election officials in two of the recall efforts tried to stop our petitioners, but they were ready and they handed over the opinion from the Election Board and after a little bit of squawking from the local officials and getting the local Police or Sheriff’s involved, they were allowed to stand their ground.
The result was that in almost every case, the groups were able to collect a majority of the signatures that they needed to force a recall effort. It really goes to show how standing up for your petitioning rights can be very effective.
Orville Seymer is the Citizens in Charge Foundation Wisconsin Citizen State Coordinator.