The Wisconsin agency that oversees elections is objecting to an internal training handbook distributed by Mitt Romney’s campaign that appears to instruct volunteer poll observers in the state to conceal their ties to the GOP candidate when they show up at polling stations on Election Day, a state official tells NBC News.
"Our plan is to contact the Romney campaign and tell them there are issues" with the material, said Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, which supervises elections in the state and enforces state election laws.
Magney said some of the training material -- obtained by the liberal Democratic blog Think Progress and posted on its website on Wednesday is either incomplete or misleading. The directive to observers, not to mention their connections to the Romney campaign, also conflicts with official Wisconsin Government Accountability Board guidance to all poll observers, publicly posted on the agency's website, instructing that they sign in and identify "the name of the organization or candidate the observer represents," he said.
“We stand by our training materials, but we are always happy to answer any questions that the Government Accountability Board may have,” Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said in an email to NBC News.
A campaign official also noted that the Romney campaign has tangled with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board's interpretation of election law on other matters. Just last week, the Romney campaign settled a lawsuit it filed against the board over military and overseas ballots, resulting in the state extending the deadline for those ballots to be returned.
The Romney campaign document, which was specifically prepared for use in Wisconsin, gives detailed instructions to volunteer election observers, calling them "the first line of defense" to insure a fair election and advising them to be on the lookout for voters who seek to cast ineligible ballots.
Under a section entitled "If you See Something, Say Something," it tells Romney campaign poll watchers to alert an official Chief Election Inspector (CEI) at polling booths if they identify a potential voting irregularity. If the CEI does not "resolve it quickly," they should call "the Command Center," it says.
The training document appears to instruct observers to hide their connection to the Romney campaign from the election inspectors at polling booths. While the observers should introduce themselves to the inspectors, they should "sign in as a 'concerned citizen' and obtain a name tag," according to the document, which bears the official insignia of the Romney campaign and is entitled "Volunteer Observer Training."
The Think Progress blog also posted an audio recording it said it obtained from a Romney campaign training session in which Kristina Sesek, a lawyer for the Wisconsin Republican Party, states: "We're going to have you sign in this election cycle as a 'concerned citizen.' We've just trying to alleviate some of the animosity of being a Republican observer up front."
A senior Romney campaign official, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity, said the directive advising that campaign poll watchers sign in as "concerned citizens" was inserted at the urging of the Wisconsin Republican Party because of recent incidents in which GOP poll watchers faced intimidation or threats at polling stations. The official said the directive was specific to Wisconsin and has not been repeated in Romney campaign training material for poll watchers in other states.
But the official defended the language in the Wisconsin campaign document, saying that signing in as a "concerned citizen" conforms to the "spirit" of Wisconsin law because the training material also instructs them not to interfere or communicate with voters seeking to cast their ballots.
The Romney campaign training handbook states that "we do not and will not tolerate any voter intimidation or suppression" and "No person should interfere with any indvidual's right to legally cast a ballot."
"There is nothing to prevent a concerned citizen from signing in as a concerned citizen," said the senior campaign official. "They're not talking to voters, they're not challenging somebody." The apparent conflict between the Romney campaign document and the official Wisconsin Government Accountability Board instructions to poll watchers to identify their campaign ties is a "distinction without a difference," the campaign official added.
Board spokesman Magney acknowledged the campaign document probably can’t be challenged as a legal matter. The official state guidance -- which explicitly states that poll watchers identify what campaign they are working for -- was issued under an emergency rule issued by the board in 2010. That rule has since expired and the board, swamped with other issues because of this year's Wisconsin recall votes, hasn't had the opportunity to officially renew it. "It fell through the cracks," Magney said.
But he noted board's website states that it has directed local officials to "continue applying the emergency rules" governing poll observers from 2010. Therefore, as far as the board is concerned, the directive that poll watchers identify themselves is still in effect, he said. He said this could be an issue in case there are post-election problems or disputes about challenges made by the poll watchers.
Magney said there were other problems with the training handbook, including its definition of ineligible voters-- whose ballots could be questioned -- as a "person who has been convicted of treason, a felony or bribery." Magney noted that under Wisconsin law, convicted felons who have served their sentences can have their civil rights restored and are eligible to vote.
The Romney campaign handbook also lists "The ONLY Acceptable Forms of 'Proof of Residency'" for voters -- and then mentions a number of items, such as current and valid drivers’ licenses, photo identification cards from employers, real estate tax bills and college IDs. But Magney said the list is incomplete, failing to mention other forms of proof, including any communication from a government agency, such as student loan documents or vehicle registration cards.
In defending the accuracy of the document, the Romney campaign official pointed to other pages of the training document. For example, the official said, on a later page, under a section titled "Cause for Challenge," the handbook instructs poll watchers that they may challenge a voter if they have knowledge that he or she "is a felon who has not been restored his/her civil rights." And on another page, it states poll watchers looking to check the proof of residency of a voter can accept a "check or other document issued by a unit of government."
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