One additional candidate was rejected for not providing all required information, leaving only 1 candidate on the ballot for three seats.
School Board Clerks have substantial election responsibilities but no training requirements.
This is the story of how what might have been a sleepy local election with 4 candidates running for 3 seats turned into a monumental debacle where 9 candidates including every incumbent, were thrown off the ballot because nobody in charge knew, prioritized, or particularly worried about election law.
We’ve spent years now in the throes of heated battles over election integrity. With Wisconsin elections often decided by razor thin margins, the issue has become so tribal that the governor has vetoed the vast majority of what should be non-controversial legislation to tighten up the law so there is certainty and clarity in the law. The lawsuits that have been required to decide some fundamental conflicts have been – still are – a full-employment program for election law attorneys. The controversies have resulted in an erosion of trust among the electorate, as well as fatigue about the issue.
This is the story about local election officials not following election law, applying ballot access rules unequally, advantaging some candidates over others, giving the public conflicting information, and bearing primary responsibility for most of the potential candidates for public office being denied ballot access.
But it’s not the kind of story you think.
Folks on all sides of the story generally agree it’s not a story of malice or fraud. Instead, it’s one where apparently decent people woefully mismanaged their election responsibilities through incompetence, inexperience, and ignorance. The candidates who should have been able to rely on their help in getting and filing the appropriate documents, instead lost the opportunity to be on the ballot because they sought help from these election officials.
Spring elections are for non-partisan offices: school boards, local governments, courts and an open seat on the state Supreme Court are on the ballot this year. The process for getting on the ballot is the same as partisan offices, though there are some slight differences in the forms. One little-known difference in school board elections is that most school boards can decide, on a year-to-year basis whether to require nomination papers or not. The school board clerk – a board member elected by the other board members – is statutorily charged with a number of responsibilities for elections, recounts, referendum, and election document retention.
Although we often hear the figure of 1850 municipal election clerks and 72 county clerks, there are another 423 clerks – the school board clerks – who also have some election administration responsibilities. These 423 school board clerks comprise 18% of all the clerks in the state with election responsibilities. They are not required to take any elections training, although the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) periodically offers training for the school district clerks, and produced an Elections Administration Manual specifically for them.
The Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB), a registered lobby group, provides trainings to school board clerks and other district staff in election responsibilities every year. WASB indicates that often school superintendents’ administrative assistants “assist” in election duties; in practice, it seems they do much of the work.
This year, the Adams-Friendship school district has three seats up, all three incumbent office-holders intended to run for reelection; none filed a Declaration of Non-candidacy. The ballot access checklist for new and continuing school board candidates includes:
- The Campaign Finance Registration Statement (CF-1). This form requires relatively little information, and some deficiencies are allowed to be corrected, the lack of certain required information (signature, name and address of treasurer) is enough to keep a candidate off the ballot.
- The Declaration of Candidacy (EL-162sd). The school board EL-162sd is slightly different than the Declaration of Candidacy for other nonpartisan candidates because school board candidates have to certify they meet qualification requirements at the time of filing to run, while candidates for other offices certify they will meet the qualifications when they assume office. Otherwise they are identical.
- If Required, Nomination Papers for Nonpartisan Office (EL-169)
The Adams-Friendship policy manual, last revised in 2022, (below) states that if incumbents fail to file the Declaration and nomination papers, other candidates will receive an additional 72 hours past the original deadline to submit their Declaration and nomination papers.
The Adams-Friendship school board clerk provided a packet containing a Declaration form, a Registration form, and Nomination Paper forms to candidates requesting them. This was the start of the trouble.
Initial Deadline for Turning in Papers: January 3rd
Ballot access documents were due to the school board clerk on January 3, 2023. Four candidates filed paperwork:
- The 3 incumbents timely filed their Declarations, and Registrations but none filed nomination papers.
- One challenger, Laura Gron, filed all three ballot access documents provided to her by the school district, on time and completely – the only candidate to do so.
When Gron filed those papers at the school district, she asked about the nomination papers of the other candidates. She was told incumbents did not need to file nomination papers so there were none. It seemed wrong to her that she would have a different bar for ballot access than other candidates. She started talking to friends who started asking questions of the county clerk, the school district and WEC.
The school district seemed not to know what was required from whom. The clerk was elected to that position in 2022 and hasn’t yet gone through a Spring Election in that position, and seems to have left the responsibilities to school district office staff.
At first the district shifted from claiming incumbents didn’t need to file nomination papers, to saying no candidates were required to turn in nomination papers and they were sorry they had given nomination papers to Gron in the candidate packet. When asked about the language in the policy manual which seemed to be based on the requirement for nomination papers, they said they couldn’t locate a past resolution to require them.
In the end, the clerk said there was “ambiguity” but that in light of the controversy about the incumbents not providing nomination paper signatures, she would follow the district policy (which she also did not believe was clear) and extend the filing deadline for 72 hours, allowing more candidates to turn in paperwork.
72 Hours for More Candidates to File
In the following 72 hours, 6 more candidates turned in ballot access documents; four of them got packets containing those documents from the school district:
- Those four turned in the wrong Declaration of Candidacy form, using EL-162 they were given by the school rather than the EL-162sb actually required for school board candidates.
- Four of the 6 new second-wave candidates submitted Campaign Finance Registration forms with insufficient required information.
- Two of the 6 filed nomination paper signatures on insufficiently completed forms.
The clerk’s ballot access decisions were as follows:
- The three incumbents had already been denied access because they had not turned in Nomination Papers as required.
- Gron, along with 4 of the 6 candidates who filed in the 72-hour window were denied access because they turned in the wrong Declaration of Candidacy form – the form provided to them by the school.
- The clerk said “information provided by a WEC attorney” indicated that it is a local decision whether to accept the wrong Declaration of Candidacy form and because the EL-162 states that it should not be used by school board candidates, and the residency attestation on the EL-162 is not the standard required of school board candidates, she would accept only the EL-162sb.
- One of the two remaining candidates was denied access because they turned in a Campaign Finance Registration that lacked the required information.
- Only the one remaining candidate qualified to be placed on the ballot.
It’s hard to fault these decisions, made after intense scrutiny and in consultation with WEC, the county clerk and no doubt legal counsel. and adhering to the letter of the law. Just like voters should be expected to properly fill out absentee ballot certifications with complete information and signatures, candidates should be expected to completely and properly fill out the appropriate forms. The information required is minimal and not onerous.
However these candidates were disadvantaged by bad information from the very officials who are charged with providing accurate information.
The situation exposes the huge problems that can result when election officials don’t know or care about the rules, the requirements, or how to carry out their statutory responsibilities. And worse, it shows how all 2,345 of them can, whether through malice or incompetence, control who can get on the ballot and who cannot.
The Wrong Forms
Eight of the 10 candidates, including the 3 incumbents, got their ballot access forms from the school district. The packet the district distributed included the wrong Declaration of Candidacy form, as well as a recently outdated, though acceptable, Campaign Finance Registration form.
It is understandable and reasonable that candidates used the forms they were given by the election entity that manages ballot access. It’s not understandable that the school distributed a Declaration of Candidacy form specifically not to be used by school board candidates when the only elections they deal with are those for school board.
The updated Campaign Finance Registration form contains the same information as the old one, and was updated very recently, in December 2022. Though the Ethics Commission (which oversees Campaign Finance) has the updated form linked on their website, WECs ballot checklist form as of January 13, 2023 links to the outdated form. Again, no one was denied ballot access because they used the older form, but it’s clear that it would not be clear or easy for a candidate to know which form to use.
Improperly Completed Forms
It’s also somewhat understandable that the 6 candidates who only had 72 hours (slightly less in practice) to take out and complete the forms were rushed and less meticulous in assuring they were fully filled out and signed. Although the forms are short, and the information required minimal, it’s abundantly clear that the local officials who should have known the requirements and been able to help, didn’t know and couldn’t help.
It isn’t readily understandable why the three incumbents, who all had gone through the process before, failed to properly complete the forms. While they were not eligible for the ballot up front based on the lack of nomination papers, in fact, none of the incumbents would have qualified for ballot access even if they had submitted nomination papers.
- Not one of them provided all the required information on their Campaign Finance Registration forms, disqualifying them. (And they all used the outdated version of the form the school district distributed.)
- None of the three used the correct Declaration of Candidacy form either, a deficiency for which the clerk later denied ballot access to other candidates.
Of the three incumbents who intended to run, none of them properly completed and returned any of the three required ballot access documents.
8 of 10 Potential Candidates Got Booted for Trusting Local Election Officials
The school district – whether the clerk or an office assistant – provided the wrong forms to candidates. And then they kicked candidates off the ballot for using the forms they were given.
It seems clear that the district isn’t very interested in their statutory responsibilities related to allowing candidates ballot access, although it’s clear they’re meticulous and adept when it comes to getting referenda for more money on the ballot. The same week their careless election administration resulted in multiple candidates being denied a spot on the ballot, they were careful in reupping an already recently (in November 2022!) rejected referenda asking for $12 million making sure THAT got a spot on the ballot. No doubt they hope the lower spring turnout will make it easier to pass. They’re savvy enough when it means more cash.
Given their lack of knowledge or understanding of election law, it seems likely that if Ms. Gron had not asked questions, she and the 3 incumbents would all have been granted ballot access. Without the increased scrutiny, the clerk is unlikely to have noticed (or cared) that the wrong form was handed out or returned. And they seem to have believed the incumbents didn’t need to turn in nomination papers, so that lack wouldn’t have caught their attention. It’s possibly, likely even, that previous elections have been run where election laws were not followed.
MacIver has open records requests pending with the district and the county about past practice/requirements.
Ballot Access Requirements were a Moving Target
But let’s put aside the broad issues for a moment, and look at one specific candidate, who was a greater victim of the school district’s incompetence.
Laura Gron turned in all the forms the school gave her, before the January 3rd deadline, and they were completed fully. The clerk examined her papers as well as those from the incumbents on January 3rd, and as a result of the nomination paper controversy, declared the incumbents were ineligible for ballot placement and opened up the 72-hour window. However, she did not then declare Gron ineligible based on her turning in the Declaration of Candidacy she was given by the clerk.
Not telling Gron her paperwork was inadequate deprived her of the opportunity to use the 72 hours new candidates received to complete the correct document, which she obviously could easily have done. (It also deprived the new candidates of the knowledge that the Declaration the clerk provided them would be rejected.)
The clerk notes in the minutes of the verification meeting that she has sole discretion on whether to accept the wrong Declaration of Candidacy. This is another one of those situations where local election officials seem to believe that the statutes are just broad suggestions. But let’s say it’s the case that the clerk has complete authority about what constitutes qualifying for the ballot and can change her mind at will.
That means the clerk must have decided – sometime after January 3 when Gron’s papers were accepted, and after January 4th when she handed out the wrong Declaration of Candidacy forms to 4 more candidates, but before January 6th when she denied everyone using the wrong Declaration ballot placement – that she was not going to accept the form she gave 8 of 10 candidates to use.
One of the reasons she provides for her decision is that the form that the school gave candidates to use says at the bottom that it’s not for school board races so they shouldn’t have used it. Another reason was that the correct form has been available since 2019. Surely the clerk could have read the form that was handed out and made sure to provide the right one. Surely the clerk could have gone online to find the correct form online to hand out. She didn’t do the basics of her job and then she punished the candidates for trusting her.
Candidates for office should all have equal ballot access requirements. But they should not have to be proficient at mind reading what the clerk might decide those requirements are on any given day. Ballot access should not be limited to which candidates can figure out that local election officials are tricking them with the wrong documents and go in search of the right ones. Candidates should not have to display greater attention to election requirements than the officials running the elections.
This example shows how it doesn’t take fraud or malice to result election administration that undermines the public trust. This situation was mismanagement, through incompetence and disinterest in the laws and rules, which resulted in 9 of 10 candidates being barred from the ballot, most of them purely because school officials gave faulty advice and documents.
Legislative Changed Needed
This should never happen. There are a few obvious things this situation reveals that can and should be fixed by the legislature. The new Assembly chair of the Elections Committee, Scott Krug, represents much of the Adams-Friendship area, and will look at what happened here and find legislative solutions.
Some of the questions Krug’s committee is sure to look at is whether school board clerks (and whoever they pass off their responsibilities to) should be required to take election training. It’s reasonable to ask whether the standards of residency should be the same for all elections, rather than different only for school board members. Should school boards be able to decide year by year if they will require nomination papers for candidates or should it be a statewide requirement? Should completed candidate access materials be posted online immediately so the public can examine them rather than having to go in person or file an open records request (which will never be filled in time to file a challenge)? What kinds of election transparency should be put in place to help prevent situations like this in the future? Is more oversight of local elections needed and what does that look like? Should there be a penalty for election officials in situations like this? Are 2,345 people with election responsibilities simply too many to do an adequate job of consistently, fairly and lawfully administering elections?
The biggest impediment to election integrity, as has been true for 4 years running, is that Governor Evers doesn’t think there are any problems. It is a fair bet that school district officials who like the law as it is – most school board clerks relinquish their election responsibilities to school employees – and will demand a veto of any legislation increasing accountability or transparency.
It’s truly unfortunate that at a time when people are increasingly less interested in running for office, that 10 people expressed interest, and 9 were denied a place on the ballot in a situation that reads like a slapstick skit. And this case is a poster child reminding us that all election mismanagement is not fraud, and isn’t going to show up in a list of people prosecuted for election misdeeds. But it happens, and it impacts election outcomes.