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Ballot bounties? Wisconsin lawmaker flags payments used to mobilize voters for liberal judge

"Community mobilizers" could make as much as $270 by creating a list of 75 people and making sustained efforts to turn out 60 of them to vote in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election.

Published: April 8, 2023 11:36pm

A Wisconsin lawmaker is questioning whether it was legal for a political action committee to pay people to encourage others to vote for liberal Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz in the state Supreme Court election in the latest mobilization tactic to raise integrity concerns in the battleground state.

Wisconsin Takes Action, a project of Organizing Empowerment PAC, held live Zoom training sessions during the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, instructing potential "community mobilizers" on how to reach out to people to encourage them to vote and get paid hundreds of dollars for their outreach efforts. 

During an hour-long training session on the day after the Wisconsin Supreme Court primary election in February, the organizers running the session explained how attendees could earn $30 by downloading an app from the Empower Project, a left-wing organization that helps "progressive organizations and nonprofits ... activate, build, and expand their activist bases and organizational reach on a meaningful scale," according to its website. 

Empower Project uses "relational organizing" for reaching out to potential voters because "talking to people who you do know," a trainer explained, is "really effective because you talking to your father to go vote or your sister or your friend is a lot more effective than me telling them to go vote because I don't know them. But with you, there's a lot more connection or relationship built and more reason for them to be compelled to go vote." 

With the app, mobilizers can add names and phone numbers of 75 people but are to contact only 60 of them. The other 15 are not to be contacted to serve as a control group in the "relational organizing" experiment. 

"So, out of the 75 people you add, 60 people will be eligible to be reached out to — it's nothing about them personally, the app pulls them automatically," one of the organizers explained in the training. "So, if you see that your sister was marked as 'do not contact,' do your best to not reach out to her about going to go vote. That's just gonna really help us be able to make sure that we have accurate data and making sure this campaign is reflected in terms of our results here." 

From Feb. 22 to March 19, mobilizers were to create their lists and contact the 60 people to ask if they were registered to vote. If the mobilizers did this, then they would receive a $60 gift card from their choice of various retailers or a prepaid Mastercard. The 60 contacts were then to be contacted again between March 20 and March 30 to be encouraged to vote early, which would get the mobilizers another $65 gift card. 

Then, between March 31 and April 2, mobilizers were to contact the 60 people again to ensure they had a plan to vote, which would earn a $70 gift card. Finally, both the day before and on Election Day, mobilizers were to contact the 60 people to encourage them to go to the polls, worth another $75 gift card. Completing all of these steps resulted in a total of $270 in gift cards. 

However, between the training session and March 19, mobilizers could make an additional $30 for every person they were able to recruit to the campaign and download the app. 

"The primary was just last night for the Supreme Court so we know who will be on the ballot in the general election," one of the organizers explained during the training. "We have Dan Kelly, the conservative former Supreme Court justice and then Janet Protasiewicz — the progressive circuit court judge currently — and she is the progressive candidate who just won the primary. 

"Of course, Wisconsin Takes Action is focused on putting forth progressive ideas and implementing progressive laws, so, you know, we really are looking forward to her as the candidate for this upcoming election." 

The organization is "offering an opportunity to help influence a really important election that's gonna decide a Supreme Court majority for years to come," the organizer said. "What's at stake? You know, a number of things. When it comes to selecting the Supreme Court justice, you know, that can decide the majority, a number of things that we've hold dear for the past 50 or 60 years can be at risk, including reproductive freedom, public education, healthcare access, criminal justice reform, voting and civil rights, and holding big business accountable." 

Wisconsin Takes Action is partnered with other left-wing organizations, such as Black Lives Matter PAC, One Fair Wage, End Citizens United and labor unions The American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. 

Despite claiming to use people's personal networks for outreach, one organizer said: "To reach out to people, you really only need their name and phone number. Also, because you don't need to know them at all, we're paying just to reach out to people. As long as you can send a text to somebody with a number, that's going count as outreach." 

One of the organizers explained how the app has texts prewritten for mobilizers to send to their contacts, saying that they could send them to acquaintances at local pharmacies and gyms. 

After an attendee asked who was paying for this outreach through gift cards, an organizer said that donors give to a nonprofit that oversees Wisconsin Takes Action and provides the funds. 

Wisconsin GOP state Rep. Janel Brandtjen told Just the News on Friday she believes that offering gift cards in exchange for mobilizing voters violates state law forbidding election bribery. If it doesn't violate the law, then Republicans should use it, she added. 

According to Wisconsin statute 12.11(1m), someone has committed election bribery if that person "[o]ffers, gives, lends or promises to give or lend, or endeavors to procure, anything of value, or any office or employment or any privilege or immunity to, or for, any elector, or to or for any other person, in order to induce any elector to:

  1. Go to or refrain from going to the polls.
  2. Vote or refrain from voting.
  3. Vote or refrain from voting for or against a particular person.
  4. Vote or refrain from voting for or against a particular referendum; or on account of any elector having done any of the above." 

One of the organizers said during the training session: "This type of organizing is almost brand new. The first time it was utilized was in 2020, and then it was only used in the Georgia runoff [Senate] elections. They did it last cycle in Nevada in the last election cycle and it worked really well." 

The organizer added, "Now they're planning to do it for this and then for all swing states in 2024 potentially." 

"It's sad that we got to the point that $40 gift cards are a necessity to get people to vote," Brandtjen said, noting that there were hundreds of people in the first training session and that Wisconsin Takes Action did three or four sessions a day. 

Phill Kline, director of the election watchdog group The Amistad Project, told Just the News on Friday that while it's illegal to pay someone to vote, campaigns and tax-exempt organizations can organize get-out-the-vote efforts. However, those efforts become illegal, he explained, when they target specific voters for specific candidates. 

"The challenge with surveillance capitalism," Kline said, is that it makes it "very easy ... to access, analyze, and use information to impact one candidate over another. If it's done legally, then the issue is why isn't the Republican Party doing it?"  

Current election laws are "antiquated," Kline said, as they don't "contemplate these sophisticated efforts with surveillance capitalism." Americans are losing faith in their elections, he argued, as outcomes increasingly hinge on "who can best game the system" when using private money to influence elections. 

The Republican National Committee didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission last month alleging that Wisconsin Takes Action and Organizing Empowerment PAC violated state campaign finance laws "by failing to file as a Political Action Committee (PAC) with the Wisconsin Ethics Committee."

Organizing Empowerment PAC told WisPolitics.com that it is complying with all filing requirements under state law. The PAC said it doesn't meet the threshold of allocating more than 50% of its total spending in a year to independent expenditures that would require it to register as an independent expenditure committee.

Wisconsin Takes Action and Organizing Empowerment PAC didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday. 

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