Prosecution of 17-Year-Old Voters

Prosecution of 17-Year-Old Voters

You may have read recent news accounts of fraudulent voting in the presidential primary by 17-year olds (for example, this article in the Wisconsin State Journal, 3/15/17).

In response, the League sent the following letter to Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne:

In the last few days the League of Women Voters—Dane County has learned that some voters who were 17 in April 2016 have been referred to your office for prosecution due to their misunderstanding of their ability to vote in the Presidential Primary.

League members had extensive experience as volunteers in the community registering voters, until in 2017 Special Registration Deputies were abolished in WI.  Many members also work as election officials registering voters at the polls.  Along with municipal clerk staff, we are probably the most knowledgeable about the complexities of registering voters in WI.

Based on our experience, we urge you not to prosecute voters who misunderstood their ability to vote in the April Presidential Preference Primary.  We think it is most likely that these would-be voters simply misunderstood the rules, as opposed to deliberately attempting to vote by fraudulent means.

The rules surrounding voting and voter registration in WI have been in continual flux since 2011, due to significant and continuing legislative changes and court actions concerning those changes.  Just to give one example:  the residency deadline for voting was 10 days, then 28 days, and then 10 days again, all within the last few years.

Additionally, the automated voter registration system used by clerks does not prevent entry of a registration of an underage voter (because if they are allowed to vote their registration must be processed before it is invalidated); it only prevents their publication on the poll books.

Many voters appear at the polls believing they have already registered to vote, and do not appear on the poll book.  These voters are routinely sent to the voter registration table at the polls.

As I’m sure you know, the workers at the polls are earnestly trying to do their best and follow all the complex rules, but they make mistakes.  Checking registration forms is not simple.  Well-trained workers know to make sure that the birth date is on the form, and is not the date the form is filled out. 

However, checking to make sure that the birth date shows that the voter is 18 is another level of complexity.  While some clerks may provide their workers with printed materials on the latest birth date permitted, the City of Madison clerk has found that these materials get inadvertently reused from election to election and therefore are not practical.  

It is also possible that some of these 17 year olds discussed their ability to vote with well-meaning poll workers.  Given the wording of the old registration form“Will you be 18 years of age or older on or before election day,”  and the fact that the laws were in flux, it is possible that the students and poll workers thought that “election day” meant November 8, 2016.  The new form has been reworded to eliminate this confusion, but the revision did not happen until September 2016.

Please drop any prosecution of voters who were children at the time they registered to vote.  We want these citizens to follow public issues and participate in our democracy.  We do not want a misunderstanding to taint their futures.  We know how complex and fluid the registration requirements have been, and we urge you to recognize this situation as a misunderstanding, not a crime.

Kathleen Fullin and Brook Soltvedt
League of Women Voters -- Dane County

WPT's Here and Now covers the story. Frederica Freyburg interviews Michael Haas, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.