Wisconsin’s Ballot Laws Should Resemble Virginia’s

Published January 10, 2012

Republicans attacking Virginia’s presidential primary ballot access laws as discriminatory, too strict and even unconstitutional are agitating for election laws more like those in Wisconsin. They should be careful what they wish for. Just ask Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who may face a recall election tainted with election fraud precisely because Wisconsin election laws don’t have safeguards like those in place in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Focusing principally on ballot access, GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich calls Virginia’s election law “a failed system.” Fellow contenders Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are in a lawsuit against the commonwealth, with Mr. Perry alleging its laws are “among the most onerous in the nation and severely restrict who may obtain petition signatures.”

So just how “onerous” is Virginia law? Not very.

To gain ballot access, a candidate there must gather 10,000 signatures from valid registered voters. There are 5 million registered voters in Virginia, so this requirement doesn’t seem particularly burdensome.

Of these 10,000 signatures, 400 must be from residents of each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts. Requiring candidates to demonstrate minimal border-to-border support is hardly unreasonable.

Petition circulators must be Virginia residents. Though some courts have ruled this violates the free speech provision of the First Amendment, and Mr. Perry so alleges in his complaint, it’s not clear why. All petition circulators in Virginia must swear all persons who signed a particular petition are registered voters there. How is an outsider to know that?

Last, petition information must be certified as accurate by the political party involved. Since the commonwealth publishes an official list of registered voters, verification may be time-consuming but it is not all that difficult.

These measures clearly safeguard the integrity of petitions for presidential primary elections in Virginia. No such laws are in place in Wisconsin.

There, petition signers (for both recall petitions and candidate nomination petitions) need not be registered voters – just state residents 18 or older, who are called “qualified electors.” No official list of Wisconsin qualified electors is maintained by state election officials, however, and no reliable and comprehensive private list is known to exist. This is an open invitation for election fraud.

Any doubt about this is erased by the fact that Wisconsin state election officials are not required by law to do any drill-down verification. They are not required to verify petition signers are actual living persons, 18 or older, and live at real Wisconsin residential addresses.

All state election officials are required to do is to glance at the “face” of the petitions, making sure all the blanks on the petition form are filled out. They are entitled under Wisconsin election law to assume all petition information is true – even, the election officials themselves concede, signatures by persons calling themselves Mickey Mouse or Adolf Hitler.

The state has 31 days to do this face check. After that, it’s up to Mr. Walker to make a stab at verification – but he has only 10 days to do so. Since there’s no official state list and no reliable private list of “qualified electors,” this verification task is virtually impossible.

Walker opponents say they’re dedicated to his recall from office “by any means necessary.” In furtherance of that slogan, they are openly urging recall supporters to sign petitions multiple times. One man admitted to signing as many as 80. Only one signature is valid, but who’s counting? Mr. Walker is supposed to, but detecting all the duplicates is impossible in the allotted 10 days.

Wisconsin petition circulators are not required to be Wisconsin residents, because of a Wisconsin federal district court ruling to that effect. But petition circulators, even those from other states, nevertheless must certify they “know” each signer and “know” their respective Wisconsin residences, and violations constitute a felony.

This provision seems pretty straightforward, but Wisconsin election officials have gutted it of all meaning. Under its official interpretation, this provision means only that the circulator must swear he was physically present in the same place as each signer when the signature was made.

Mr. Walker stirred up controversy by gaining passage of legislation, shortly after his election in November 2010, eliminating a $3.6 billion state budget deficit. Among other things, the Walker-initiated legislation balanced the state budget by limiting collective bargaining for public employees and reducing state aid to local school districts. To make up for the loss of state aid, the Walker legislation enabled school districts to require teachers to contribute small percentages toward their health insurance and pension costs.

The evidence is overwhelming that Mr. Walker‘s measures have worked. The state budget is balanced, education has not suffered, and public employees (including teachers) have not been laid off. But unions – especially teacher unions – declared war on his administration because of the partial ban on collective bargaining.

Elections – whether recall elections or presidential primaries – ought not to be held unless they are called for by valid state electors.

Republicans have distinguished themselves, unlike Democrats, by calling for election integrity measures such as requiring photo identification by voters. Signature measures are no less necessary.

Virginia’s laws ought to be celebrated, not castigated. Let’s live by principle.

[First published in The Washington Times.]