There was a little article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that went pretty much unnoticed and as far as I know, uncommented on. But apparently a gentleman from a more rural area of Southeastern Wisconsin had a fixation on how we all vote here in the big city of Milwaukee.
He likes to observe vote counting and reconciliation and would prefer to videotape the proceedings if he were only allowed to do so. But apparently that is forbidden unless the Wisconsin Attorney General declares such polling activity as subject to open meeting laws. Now that is the crux of the matter…open meetings can be recorded by anyone who is interested…and government bodies subject to open meeting laws are required to facilitate citizens whose hobby might be recording open meetings.
Here is the initial exposition in the article about our civic hobbyist and the questions about the open meeting status of poll activities:
John Washburn is an election gadfly, eager to observe and videotape post-election activities at the polls.
More than 18 months ago, Washburn wrote Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, requesting a legal opinion on whether the nuts and bolts of counting and reconciling votes are subject to the state’s open meetings laws. Even if they aren’t, observers are still allowed to witness the process.
It may be a fine distinction to most, yet Washburn is still awaiting an answer.
And he’s not the only one.
In May, the state Government Accountability Board also requested an opinion from Van Hollen to determine how open meetings requirements might apply to post-election activities.
With November fast approaching, election officials are seeking clarity on the open meetings issue before voters hit the polls.
“This is one of the core processes of an election, the canvass,” Washburn said in a telephone interview. “I’d like to watch the activity and keep an eye on it. It is the way the consent of the governed is transferred so the government can justify its powers.”
Washburn, of Germantown, is well known to Milwaukee election officials. Twice, he’s been asked to leave rooms where votes were being tabulated or reconciled.
The first time was election night 2012, when Washburn and several others attempted to videotape activities at the Zablocki Library after the polls closed. Poll workers were surprised to see him taping and told him to leave.
Two days after the most recent primary, Washburn showed up at Milwaukee’s post-election reconciliation. Under a requirement passed earlier this year by the state Legislature, election observers have to produce photo identification.
“When he refused to do that, the observer rules were enforced and he was asked to leave,” said Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.
No I know I am being a little flip about Mr. Washburn’s activities. But it is a rather interesting conundrum. And I am not sure whether I feel that vote gathering and polling and reconciliation is an open meeting or an official work activity of public employees. And although I am all in favor of transparency in the voting process…I am not so sure there isn’t some form of intentional intimidation of poll workers involved here…particularly when out of town ‘observers’ are involved. Now I am not suggesting that Mr. Washburn is doing anything but being curious…and given his refusal to provide ID as an observer, I wonder what his stance is on voter id.
Well enough of that, let’s get to the meat of my interest in this article. Here is the pertinent snippet on why everyone wants a ruling on whether this is an open meeting type of government activity:
“If the open meetings law applies, it requires the government body to allow and facilitate recording of their meetings by anyone who cares to,” said Dreps (Mr. Washburn’s attorney, Robert Dreps), who has previously represented Washburn as well as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Open meetings requires government to allow recording of their meetings. Now why is this so interesting? Because the most obvious and conspicuous open meetings in the State of Wisconsin occur under the dome of the Capitol in the Assembly Chamber…but you CAN NOT record those proceedings in any way shape or form. The State Assembly is the biggest violator of open meetings laws in the State of Wisconsin. Maybe the Capitol Police should turn their attention to arresting the criminals on the Assembly floor instead of the citizens in the gallery who are trying to audio record, video record or simply taking notes on the proceedings in chambers. It might be a far more productive use of their time!