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  • Writer's pictureEd Finkel

Tales of an Election Day Poll Observer

Photo Credit: Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Now that the last-ditch bid to derail Joe Biden’s election certification in Congress has fallen short, I feel free, at last, to publicly tell my story of serving as an Election Day observer on behalf of the Wisconsin Democratic Party at a polling place on the west side of Milwaukee, not far from the suburb of Wauwatosa.

I hadn’t wanted it known publicly until now, but the fraud I observed that day was so rampant, it could have not only overturned the election results in Wisconsin but several other key battleground states as well.

Just kidding -- and I hope I didn’t just inspire anyone to start rioting.

What I actually witnessed inside a Milwaukee Public Housing Authority administration building was at times entertaining, enlightening or inspiring, but mostly pretty mundane.

Using an app cheekily titled “LBJ,” the Wis Dems (as they call themselves) sent us into the field after a couple of Zoom trainings to report about barriers that prevented people from voting -- long lines, broken machines, not enough ballots, or a contingent of the Proud Boys showing up and creating a ruckus, among other monkey wrenches.

While I’m sure there were polling places that had more of that type of action, the only time I saw a line out the door was when our location opened at 7 a.m., and none of those other issues materialized. It might have been partly because it was a small -- and during COVID, uncomfortably distanced -- facility featuring a space maybe twice the size of a typical conference room.

Throughout the day, there was a steady stream of people showing up to vote and, in some cases, same-day register. With just five machines, the precinct tallied 290 votes throughout the day, about 30 percent of which were cast by people who hadn’t been registered prior to Election Day -- a phenomenon that led to the GOP’s conspiracy theory about “suspiciously high” turnout in Wisconsin.

(Side note: Those turnout figures, reportedly as high as 88%, were based on the total number of voters, including those registered on Election Day, divided into the tally of registered voters prior to Election Day, since same-day voters hadn’t been added into the statewide registration total just yet. Leading to a question of whether Republicans were being disingenuous or just math-challenged.)

There was another Democratic observer in the same polling place, and she agreed to help people having trouble with the actual voting, while I would sit closer to the registration table and help those facing hurdles on that front.

Wisconsin law prevents observers from approaching voters inside a polling place, so this required the somewhat awkward strategy of following people outside before I could talk to them.

I missed the first couple people who were not able to register -- the first walked away in a huff just as I entered, and the other disappeared around the corner before I could catch up. Apparently, I did not have my voter-stalking rhythm down just yet. I joked with my wife that if Trump won Wisconsin by two votes, it would be all my fault.

But I caught up to several other voters who had difficulties registering due to lack of official mail with the person’s address, such as a utility bill (read: sweepstakes offers don’t qualify). Some declined my help, while others happily gave me their names and contact information, so that a representative of the Wis Dems could follow up with them and make sure they successfully registered and voted.

Most of those voters later returned, including a couple people from a local halfway house who needed to establish that they had been residents there long enough to be voting in that particular precinct, which under Wisconsin law is 28 days. One of them was a woman carting an oxygen tank behind her, and the sight of her returning a second time to register and then vote particularly lifted my spirits, although it was inspiring that anyone facing those levels of life challenges made the effort.

Probably the highlight of the day for everyone at the polling place, workers and observers alike, was the gentleman who had to make three separate trips before he could successfully register and vote. The first time, he did not have proof of address. When he returned, he brought mail sent to him at his address -- but it did not pass muster because it was not one of the officially sanctioned categories of mail.

At that point, he stormed out after yelling something like, “Trump has fucked y'all up with his bullshit!” and I don’t think anyone expected to see him again. But he returned about an hour later with a qualifying piece of mail, apologized for his earlier demeanor, registered, voted, and received a hearty round of applause from everyone in the room. “Now, it’s Miller time!” he declared triumphantly. And who wouldn’t have needed a drink after all that?

In all the cases where voters had difficulties, the poll workers seemed to be trying to help -- but also firm in enforcing the laws, even in the face of being cussed out.

The lack of anything approaching actual fraud might have been disappointing to the lone Republican observer in the polling place, a young, clean-cut guy who looked more like a Brooks Brothers Republican than a member of the Proud Boys, and who left part way through the day. We introduced ourselves briefly and didn’t talk much after that -- although I couldn’t help but notice that he followed me the first few times I followed voters outside.

I’m not sure what his angle was, although the timing couldn’t have been coincidental -- he was clearly eavesdropping and attempting to pick up any improprieties or other dirt in the conversation that might be helpful to the “Wis Repubs.” At no point did he or the other two Republicans, who showed up for much briefer periods of time later in the day, attempt to challenge anyone’s validity -- at least not that day, on site. But I did feel for a while like I had a shadow. Maybe he was just “standing back, and standing by.”

The other Democratic observer later told me that the Republican guy had been taking copious notes all morning about what she thought might have been minor mistakes that poll workers were making in checking people in, such as not writing the voter’s City of Milwaukee ward on their voter slip. These struck me as the sorts of “irregularities” that might have later turned up as “evidence” in one or more of the dozens of failed court cases filed by President Trump and others associated with the GOP.

The Republican guy also apparently noted that the five voting machines in the precinct, which faced out into the small room and were just a few feet from where people were lining up to register, did not provide sufficient privacy -- a problem that we also reported back to the Wis Dems. I guess that was our moment of bipartisan cooperation.

But it wasn’t a great mystery why the Wis Repubs didn’t stick around all day. There wasn’t anything that juicy happening from their perspective. For most of the day, there were more poll workers than voters. In the end, the precinct captain tallied 137 voters by 1 p.m., 200 by 4 p.m., and 290 when the polling place closed at 8. About three-quarters of voters were Black, and in the end, about 85-90 percent of votes in the precinct went to President-elect Biden.

Which was clearly, somehow, evidence of massive, and probably multi-state, fraud. But on a more serious note, once the Wisconsin votes were tallied and Biden’s 20,000-vote statewide victory came into focus, I looked forward to learning how many votes-per-precinct he’d won the state by, a number that would have particular resonance for me this year.

I also wondered how many votes were going to be challenged due to the machinations of my Republican shadow. And I wonder now whether he “graduated” to storming the U.S. Capitol building last Wednesday.

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