GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) – Green Bay’s city clerk opposed an early voting site on the UW-Green Bay campus because she thought it could give an advantage to Democrats, according to emails obtained by Action 2 News.
As Action 2 News reported during the April 6 Primary Election, some voters had to wait in line well after the polls closed to cast a vote at the UW-Green Bay campus. Some students missed work and class to wait three hours just to vote.
The emails, as first reported by The Nation magazine, date back to August, when Democratic State Rep. Eric Genrich emailed city clerk Kris Teske asking her about the possibility of setting up a satellite location for early voting. He suggested the UW-Green Bay campus.
“We have students of all kinds of different partisan affiliations over at UWGB — Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats — and all of those organizations supported an early vote location on campus,” Genrich said.
Genrich tells us, “We all witnessed what occurred out there in the spring — two to three hour wait times for students and other residents who vote on campus — so when the federal courts came down with their decision saying it was a possibility to open up a satellite early vote location, we felt like it made a lot of sense to suggest that for that campus location.”
Teske responded by saying she was concerned about costs and security. She said she didn’t have the money or staff to have a satellite location and that it creates more paperwork and “time that we don’t have.”
In an email to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (which is now the Wisconsin Elections Commission), Teske wrote that she had a state lawmaker (Genrich) who “is being very persistent about having an alternate polling location at UWGB.”
Teske went on to write that she opposed a UWGB location due to staffing, security, budgets and a statute that reads “No site may be designated that affords an advantage to any political party.”
“UWGB is a polling location for students and residents on Election Day but I feel by asking for this to be the site for early voting is encouraging the students to vote more than benefiting the city as a whole. I have heard it said that students lean more toward the democrats and he [Genrich] is a democrat. I have spoken with our Chief of Staff and others at City Hall and they agree that budget wise this isn’t going to happen.”
A later email to Teske from Nathan Judnic, legal counsel for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, reads that security, budget, and staffing are legitimate reasons to deny an early voting satellite site. However, he says he would be “hesitant” to make an argument that it gives an advantage to a political party.
Judnic writes, “If the campus polling location is OK for election day, and there is no ‘political advantage’ then, I’m not sure what the difference is for in-person absentee voting at that same location?”
Teske replied, “I can’t see anyone but the students using it during in-person absentee voting. If I could have an alternative site it wouldn’t be there.”
One Wisconsin Institute, a liberal activist group, successfully sued to overturn rules saying cities could only have one early voting site. They received these emails after filing an open records request.
“What was most alarming to us was that partisan considerations were made in denying the students access to early voting on campus,” Scot Ross with One Wisconsin Institute said.
Green Bay Mayor Chief of Staff Celestine Jeffreys released a statement supporting Teske and saying allegations Teske tried to make it harder for Democrats to vote “are completely false.” Jeffreys says Teske wanted to follow the law and sought guidance from the city attorney and state elections officials in interpreting the statutes.
Democratic State Sen. Dave Hansen says it would be “an affront to our democracy” if the UWGB early voting site was denied for partisan reasons. “As adults we try to teach our children they have a civic responsibility to vote and that their vote counts…. The city should do everything in their power to correct this so that all students at UWGB, regardless of who they support, are able to vote without the problems that were encountered last spring.”
Republican State Sen. Rob Cowles calls the outcome “embarrassing.”
“I certainly vehemently disagree with the position that this clerk said apparently in emails and also the outcome of not making a polling site available. If you’ve got waiting lines like that, you’ve got to deal with it.”
In September, Democratic and Republican students joined forces to deliver a letter to city hall, asking for an early voting location on campus.
After that effort, the city announced it would extend a contract so that students can use public transportation to vote early at the Clerk’s office.
Students will now be able to ride Green Bay Metro for free to vote at the Clerk’s office, 100 N. Jefferson St., until the first weekend of November. The UWGB student government will distribute transportation passes to students.
Jeffreys wrote, “When the City could not offer a polling location at UWGB, it agreed to offer free bus passes to students, until the election is over, to ensure they have continued access to early voting. The City has never ignored students, but every action we take has to be within the confines of the law.”
Jeffreys says the city is identifying more locations for early in-person absentee voting and other polling sites for future elections. “We look forward to expanding these opportunities to other parts of the city.”
Action 2 News is getting reaction to this story and will have full coverage tonight.