What's the Matter With Wisconsin This Time

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Democratic allegations of conservative attempts to suppress the vote in advance of recall elections Tuesday are probably overblown
wisconsinrecall.banner.jpgMADISON -- Here's what you need to know about what's going on in Wisconsin right now:  Nobody knows what the hell is going on in Wisconsin. Over the next two weeks, eight recall elections will determine whether the GOP maintains control over the State Senate; six Republican senators and two Democrats stand to lose their seats. Democrats need to win five of those contests to gain control of the chamber. Who's ahead? It depends who you ask. There are some poll results, which show close races in almost every contested district. But interpreting polls requires understanding which respondents are actually likely to vote, and likely voter models are based on results from similar elections in the past.

There are no similar elections in the past. We're in unexplored territory. 

What we know for sure: the stakes are high. A unified Democratic majority in the Senate would pose an effective block to Gov. Scott Walker's attempts to renegotiate the state's social contract, and would boost morale as Democrats attempt to recall the governor himself next year. But if the Republicans hold on, Democratic State Senator Fred Risser told The Isthmus, "I have to think the recall efforts on the governor are not viable."  Money from outside groups on the left and right has flooded the state: the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates spending on the eight recall races at around $25 million, substantially greater than the total spent last November, when 15 seats in the State Senate and all 99 in the Assembly were up for grabs.

Unsurprisingly, accusations of shady dealings are flying. (You might think we're upright mild-mannered Midwesterners here, but don't forget, this is also the home of the Milwaukee Black Voters League, the still-anonymous group that circulated flyers in 2004 with the false claim that traffic citations made city residents ineligible to vote, and subject to arrest if they showed up at the polls.) The latest story, broken by Politico's David Catanese on Monday, is that the not-technically-affiliated-with-the-Republican-Party advocacy group Americans for Prosperity sent absentee ballot applications to Democratic voters in two districts where GOP senators are up for recall. Wasn't that nice of them? Just two problems: the mail-in address on the form -- billed as the "Absentee Ballot Application Processing Center"  -- isn't an official government body, but a P.O. box in Madison owned by the Wisconsin Family Action PAC. And the application instructs voters to turn in their absentee ballot by August 11, when election day in districts 2 and 10 is actually August 9. (See a scan of the form here.)

The story spread quickly to liberal buzz-foci like Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post, and by the end of the day the state Democratic Party had filed a complaint with the state Government Accountability Board, accusing AFP of violating Wisconsin law by making "a false statement which is intended or tends to affect voting at an election." Americans for Prosperity state director Matt Seaholm said the incorrect date was a mistake, and that those forms were meant for AFP members in the districts with August 16 recalls.

Sadly for conspiracy fans, he's probably telling the truth.

First of all, AFP isn't the only right-leaning group asking voters to send absentee ballot applications to mystery P.O. boxes. Wisconsin Right to Life sent voters the same form, pointing to the same Madison P.O. box; United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, a gun-rights group, used a P.O. box in Waunakee. Those mailings, unlike the ones from AFP, ask voters explicitly to elect "right-to-life" or "pro-gun" candidates to the legislature -- not what you'd do if you were trying to trick Democrats into filling out the application. You've got to figure applications sent to those P.O. boxes are actually getting forwarded to the relevant county clerks.

The AFP mailer is different, giving no hint that it's meant for Republicans. So the fraud narrative goes like this -- Americans for Prosperity sent a deracinated version of the application form to registered Democrats, intentionally misrepresenting the election date in order to fool them into disenfranchising themselves.

But if that's so, where are the other Democrats who got the mailer? Graeme Zielinski, spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic party, told me he "suspects" there are more -- but three days after the initial complaint, there's no evidence that any Democrats other than the two named by Politico received the misdated forms, much less that lists of Democratic voters were specifically targeted.

Of course, if Seaholm's explanation is correct, there should be lots of Republicans who received mailers with the wrong date; a call to AFP asking about this was not immediately returned. "Busy press week," their receptionist told me apologetically.

Still, it's hard to see what right-wing groups would gain by an absentee-ballot headfake when they've got plenty of cash on hand to push their agenda the old-fashioned way, with big buys for ads suggesting, falsely, that a Democratic challenger got behind on his child support.

The simplest explanation is probably the right one: Americans for Prosperity's mailing list has some dud names mixed in. Mistakes happen, as both parties know. Ask the voters in recall districts, including some Republicans, who got calls from the DNC last week asking if they were planning to vote -- a week after Election Day.

Image credit: REUTERS/Darren Hauck

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Jordan Ellenberg is Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He writes the "Do the Math" column at Slate, and has written on mathematical topics for the New York Times, Wired, the Washington Post, and the Believer. He blogs at Quomodocumque.

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