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Governor Scott McCallum (R-WI), locked in a tight race with challenger Jim Doyle (D-WI), begins airing ads accusing Doyle, Wisconsin’s attorney general, of “bribing the mentally ill for votes.” McCallum’s ads accuse Doyle of being involved in an alleged vote-buying scheme, where a Democratic campaign volunteer at a Kenosha residential home, Frank Santapoalo, supposedly plied mentally challenged residents with bingo games, refreshments (soda and “kringle,” a type of pastry), and small cash prizes in return for their votes on absentee ballots. The ads call Doyle “crooked” and accuse the Doyle campaign of “vote-buying.” The McCallum campaign calls the allegations “Bingo-Gate,” and is joined in the allegations by state Republican chairman Rick Graber. An October 22 story by a reporter for WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee claims at least two residents of the home cast absentee ballots, and one of those two voters may have been a convicted felon (that allegation is soon withdrawn by WTMJ; there is a convicted felon living at the home, but that person did not fill out a ballot). Wisconsin law prohibits anyone from giving a voter anything worth more than $1 in value to influence their vote; according to WTMJ, the residents won an average of 75 cents in quarters as well as soda and pastries, ramping the value of their “gifts” to over the $1 limit. Video shot by WTMJ shows the home’s activity director, Tammy Nerling, telling the residents that there are absentee ballots upstairs in the home if they are interested in voting. The video also shows Santapoalo wearing a Doyle campaign sticker on his clothing. And a Democratic party worker, Angela Arrington, invited by Doyle to talk to the residents about absentee voting, is shown leaving the premises upon seeing the cameras on site. No one is seen on the videotape soliciting votes in return for money or sodas; moreover, the sodas were provided by the home, Nerling says, and not Santapoalo. Graber says: “They gave them quarters, they gave them food, and they gave them drink. [State law] says very clearly you can’t give them something of value in exchange for votes.” State Democratic Party spokesman Thad Nation says, “We haven’t seen any evidence that anything illegal was done.” Santapoalo and Nerling both say they do not recall anyone filling out ballots after the bingo game. Kenosha City Clerk Jean Morgan says that of the 33 absentee ballot forms taken to the home, about half have been returned. The ballots are not dated, she says, making it impossible to ascertain when they were completed. The residence orders absentee ballots for every election, she says. The owner of the residential home, Lee Hamdia, says no votes were bought at the bingo party, and calls reports to the contrary “misinformation and gross distortions.” Hamdia says that the two residents did cast ballots the same day as the bingo game, but were not induced to vote by the bingo game nor by any visitor to the home. The residents have denied having any “political discussion[s]” of any kind in their conversations with the volunteer. [Capital Times, 10/24/2002; Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 10/24/2002; Capital Times, 10/31/2002; Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 10/31/2002] Nerling says bingo games with small prizes are a staple of residence life, taking place several times a week, and often sponsored by outside groups, including political organizations of all persuasions. Santapoalo says he has a relative living at the home, and has been visiting there for about 12 years. Nerling and admissions director Trish O’Dell say the residents have the mental capacity to cast votes, and some of them have long-standing affiliations with political parties. [Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 10/24/2002]
'Character Assassination' - Three former Wisconsin governors, Tony Earl, Martin Schreiber, and Gaylord Nelson, issue a joint statement calling the ads “character assassination”; Representative David Obey (D-WI) compares McCallum’s campaign tactics with the tactics of the late Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI) and calls the ads “despicable.” After the criticism is joined by negative observations in the national press, McCallum’s campaign begins airing “softer” versions of the ads that replace the characterization of “crooked” with the accusation that Doyle’s purported vote-buying “shames us.” The ads also continue alleging that a felon cast a vote at the home, even though Morgan says that is not the case, and continue alleging that Doyle was “caught bribing the mentally ill for votes” and “votes were bought,” charges that are not substantiated by evidence. Doyle’s campaign says McCallum toned down the ads because they were caught “red-handed” making false charges; the Doyle campaign says that the new versions of the McCallum ads are also false. McCallum’s campaign manager denies that the ads were toned down because of criticism over the earlier television ads, and McCallum says Doyle and his supporters are attacking the credibility of the allegations because “there isn’t a defense for what [Doyle has] done.… The issue is what they did to disenfranchise voters, every voter in Wisconsin. Jim Doyle ought to apologize for the national shame he has brought on the state of Wisconsin.” Wisconsin Republicans say they intend to ask for a federal investigation of the bingo party, a request that state Democrats call a “political stunt.” A state prosecutor is investigating the claims. Political science professor Ken Goldstein says: “I’ve watched a lot of ads. This one, unless I see a lot of good evidence from McCallum’s folks, is over the line.”
Attempt to Lower Voter Turnout? - Another political science professor, David Littig, says the ads are designed for undecided voters, using unsupported emotional appeals to either persuade them to vote for McCallum or to stay home and not vote for Doyle. “The whole tone of the [McCallum] campaign has been to suppress the turnout,” Littig says. Doyle agrees, saying: “If people vote I’m going to win this election easily. McCallum is playing a cynical game right now. He’s trying to do everything he can to keep people from going to the polls.” Former Senate candidate Ed Garvey (D-WI), who narrowly lost an election when his opponent leveled false charges that he stole $750,000 of union money, says of the McCallum campaign: “They must be completely worried that this thing is falling apart. If you are doing well, you don’t call the other guy a crook.” [Capital Times, 10/31/2002; Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 10/31/2002]
No Charges Filed - Two days later, the special prosecutor investigating the case refuses to file charges, saying no evidence exists of any wrongdoing (see November 2, 2002). McCallum will lose the election to Doyle. The New York Times will call the entire campaign as conducted by both parties highly negative, and will say that McCallum’s attempts to accuse Doyle of voter fraud and other allegations “appeared to backfire” with voters. [New York Times, 11/7/2002]
Entity Tags: Lee Hamdia, James E. (“Jim”) Doyle, Gaylord Nelson, Frank Santapoalo, Ed Garvey, David Littig, Angela Arrington, Ken Goldstein, Jean Morgan, Wisconsin Republican Party, Tony Earl, WTMJ-TV, Trish O’Dell, Tammy Nerling, Thad Nation, New York Times, Martin Schreiber, Rick Graber, Scott McCallum
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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