Last Saturday, voters in Madison headed to over 200 Madison parks to return their absentee ballots or register to vote during the citywide “Democracy in the Park.” But, the event — paid for, organized by, and conducted by the City of Madison’s Clerk’s Office — faced unfounded claims of ballot harvesting from conservative legislative leaders and radio personalities one day before the event.
City of Madison Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl says about 10,000 absentee ballots were collected at 206 Madison parks during Saturday’s event.
Democracy in the Park, which is also planned for this coming Saturday, offers Madison voters a nearby spot to drop off their absentee ballot or register to vote.
“Voters are anxious to get their ballot returned, and are a little leery about the mail given things that have been said at the national level, and changes that they’ve heard about with the post office,” says Witzel-Behl.
Misha Tseytlin , an attorney for Wisconsin’s top Republicans — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — issued a cease and desist letter to the City Clerk’s office, calling Democracy in the Park illegal and not secure.
Madison City Attorney Michael Haas pushed back on the claims in a reply Saturday.
“Well it was legal because there’s no statute that prohibits it,” Haas says.
Haas says since no absentee ballots were handed to voters, the event was not an in-person absentee voting event.
“This is simply a means for voters to return their absentee ballots which has already been mailed to them,” Haas says, “and return them to sworn election officials.”
Haas also questions the claim that the ballots are not secure.
“You could argue that it is more secure than putting it in the mail because the only people who are touching the ballot are election officials,” Haas says.
Clerk Witzel-Behl told WORT on Friday that elections officials were taking appropriate security measures during Democracy in the Park.
“Ballots will be put in a ballot security bag, with a tamper-evident seal and a unique serial number on it,” Witzel-Behl said, “Poll workers will complete a chain-of-custody form, indicating the number of ballots being transferred back to the Clerk’s office and the serial number on the seal.”
But the unfounded concerns were quickly circulated online and on the air the day before the event, chiefly by conservative talk host Vicki McKenna, who falsely alleged that the event was funded by Joe Biden during her Friday broadcast.
“We need good conservatives, good republicans, to go to the 200 Madison city parks, and observe,” McKenna said, “These are polling locations, this is one step shy of ballot harvesting.”
Ballot harvesting is when a third-party collects and delivers ballots. Democracy in the Park is not ballot harvesting, according to Witzel-Behl.
“It was voters bringing their ballots to sworn election officials who had taken an oath of office, and are the same people who work at your polling place on election day,” Witzel-Behl says.
Attorney Tseytlin directed WORT to the legislative leaders who brought the case, and declined to comment. Those leaders — Speaker Vos and Majority Leader Fitzgerald – could not be reached for comment.
A second “Democracy in the Park” event will be held this Saturday, from 9am to 3pm. For more information, residents can go to the City of Madison website at cityofmadison.com.
(Photo Credit: Chali Pittman)