RACINE — A vocal group of activists, primarily from Milwaukee with some from Racine and Kenosha, demonstrated in Downtown Racine Tuesday to demand the Racine County Sheriff’s Office arrest the man who admitted to illegally requesting absentee ballots last week to prove it was possible.
However, the investigation is no longer being handled by local law enforcement.
The Racine County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the investigation is being fully handled by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
“The Sheriff’s Office requested the Attorney General’s Office investigate this matter because it is a statewide problem with statewide implications. On Friday, July 29, 2022, the Attorney General’s Office agreed to take over the investigation,” RSCO Lt. Michael Luell said in an email Tuesday. “Therefore, this investigation is being handled by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Division of Criminal Investigations and not the Sheriff’s Office.”
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As of press time, the DOJ did not reply to a request for comment on this story.
Disagreeing about integrity
Both sides, the Sheriff’s Office and those criticizing the Sheriff’s Office, attest they are the ones standing up for election integrity.
• The Sheriff’s Office says it is aiming to prevent fraudulent ballots from being submitted, aligning with the suspicions of Harry Wait, the man who admitted to requesting absentee ballots using the names of Racine Mayor Cory Mason and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
• Stephanie Johnson, Power to the Polls program director, said Tuesday that the Sheriff’s Office is “colluding with election deniers.”
Wait is among those who question the validity of the 2020 election. He is campaigning in favor of local Republican candidates Jay Stone and Adam Steen who have called for Joe Biden’s election win to be overturned; Stone is challenging Republican incumbent state Sen. Van Wanggaard in District 21, and Steen is running against Vos, also a Republican, in District 63.
“We are more motivated than ever to make sure every voice is heard,” said Johnson. “Together we are demanding to fight every attack on our voting rights.”
Voting and fears
The pro-voter access activists Tuesday said they fear there is an impression that some election fraud is OK in the eyes of local law enforcement since Wait still has not been arrested a whole week after he publicly admitted to committing felony election fraud.
They also fear that continued criticism of Wisconsin’s mail-in voting system will have a chilling effect on actual registered voters who may find it difficult to cast ballots in person.
“It makes people afraid to come to the polls,” said Diana Valencia, a Racine-based organizer with 9to5 Wisconsin. “Do you know how many thousands of old people are afraid to send their ballots in, because they say they have to come in person?” even though mail-in voting remains fully legal in Wisconsin and there has been no evidence of widespread election fraud being carried out through the mail.
Mail-in voting has been credited for increasing American voter turnout, particularly during the pandemic, while there does not appear to be a correlation if mail-in voting benefitting either political party.
“In our data, we confirm important conventional wisdom among election experts: VBM (Voting By Mail) offers voters considerable convenience, increases turnout rates modestly, but has no discernible effect on party vote shares or the partisan share of the electorate,” stated a Princeton University study published in May 2020, but based on data collected prior to the onset of the pandemic.
To prevent fraudsters from using the scheme highlighted by Wait, the Sheriff’s Office has called for the Wisconsin Elections Commission to remove the functionality of MyVote.Wi.gov that allows absentee ballots be mailed to any address by providing only the voter’s first name, last name and birthdate, and without having to provide a voter ID or declare the voter indefinitely confined. To request ballots that way, the voter whose name the ballot is being requested under must have voted by mail previously; it would not work if the voter had only voted in person before or if the individual was not an active registered voter.
Speakers during Tuesday’s protest alleged the Sheriff’s Office was failing to condemn lawbreaking and actual election fraud to serve political purposes; allegations the RCSO denies.
“The sheriff of Racine County must investigate the breaking of laws,” said Pastor Mose Fuller of St. Timothy Community Baptist Church in Milwaukee.
Wait emailed a number of elected officials — at 3:13 a.m. July 27 — and admitted what he did. On the morning of July 27, Wait said that Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling called him.
According to the RCSO, Schmaling began the conversation by thanking Wait for bringing light to what they both see as a vulnerability in Wisconsin’s election system. When Wait asked if he was going to be arrested, Schmaling replied “Hell no.”
Luell said Tuesday that the “Hell no” quote has been misunderstood and that rather “the Sheriff stated he was not going to make that arrest at that time and place” — Wait had told officials he would be at the Racine County Fair and could be arrested there.
In a Facebook post July 29, the Racine County Sheriff’s Office said “Criminal arrests, where police physically place a citizen in handcuffs, are made after thorough investigations and the formulation of probable cause. Criminal arrests are not based upon late-night emails and requests to be arrested.”
The Sheriff’s Office has said that, when contacted by Wait, it was already investigating MyVote because there previously had been a complaint brought forward by Adrianne Melby of Burlington, which led the Sheriff’s Office on the afternoon of July 27 to publicly demand changes to MyVote.
Wait told a reporter Tuesday he is “surprised” he has not been arrested yet, since he publicly admitted to committing felonies a whole week ago.
Also Tuesday, Wait tried to give Mason’s blank ballot back to the City Clerk’s Office, but was told by the clerk that it could not be taken back. According to the city, that ballot has already been canceled and invalidated.
“The absentee ballot is inactive and therefore cannot be accepted into WisVote,” City Clerk Tara McMenamin said in an email. “Mr. Wait was in the clerk’s office attempting to turn over the deactivated ballot. However, as explained to Mr. Wait in person, clerk’s office staff may only legally accept ballots from the voter.”
Wait said the Clerk’s Office was “negligent and derelict in sending out the ballot in the first place.”
He then went to the Racine County Law Enforcement Center and said he refused to leave until somebody took the ballot from him; it was eventually taken by a deputy.
RCSO led prior investigation
The Sheriff’s Office spent almost a year, between 2020 and 2021, on an investigation into how special voting deputies were not sent into nursing homes to carry out the vote during the pandemic, as is typically required under Wisconsin law.
WEC commissioners had voted to waive the SVD requirement, which it did not technically have the power to do. Elections officials argued that was necessary in order to protect public safety while also still allowing those living in nursing homes to vote, since the Legislature had made no legal changes to increase access to the polls during the pandemic.
The Sheriff’s Office requested charges to be filed against five of six WEC commissioners for saying a law would be waived, a power the commission does not have under state law, but no prosecutors filed charges despite several being contacted by the RCSO. But it was not until after more than half a year of investigation that charges were recommended.
Regarding the similarities and differences between the two investigations of alleged election fraud, Luell wrote: "When the Sheriff’s Office investigated the Wisconsin Election Commission for violations of the same laws, we conducted an investigation and requested the Attorney General’s Office take over the investigation. The Attorney General’s Office declined, so we completed our thorough investigation and referred charges to the appropriate prosecutors. No WEC commissioners were ever arrested for their violations of Wisconsin Statute 12.13 because there were no public safety concerns, the commissioners were easy to locate, and there were no flight risks. These cases are being handled in a similar manner, except the Attorney General’s Office decided to take over Harry Wait’s case."
Sheriff's Office says race isn't a factor
Speakers Tuesday, including NAACP Racine Branch President Dwight Mosby, alleged race is playing a factor in why no one has yet arrested Wait, who is white.
The Sheriff’s Office denied that race has anything to do with it.
“Despite the comments of the NAACP and others, the decision to physically arrest someone is never based upon race, but rather the nature of the offense,” Luell said. “Some offenses are handled with a citation and no arrest, some offenses require a mandatory arrest, some offenses require arrests based on public safety concerns or other policy decisions, and some offenses can be handled with a referral to the prosecutor’s office. Either way, no arrest will be made until a thorough investigation is completed and probable cause, or more, is established.”
Kyle Johnson, a Kenosha native who now works for Milwaukee-based Black Leaders Organizing Communities and is black, said “We see somebody (Wait) in broad daylight break the law … When they (law enforcement) see somebody who looks like me break the law … they don’t hesitate to pull them over.”
Added Jai Lue, a Racinian who is a BLOC organizer: “If you want to enforce someone stealing diapers from Family Dollar because she can’t afford them, why wouldn’t you want to prosecute someone who is trying to take down the whole election system? … Prosecute us all the same. Then we can say we have a fair system.”