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GAB approves cell phone residency against staff advice

By Mary Lazich

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com .

At its August 28 meeting, the Government Accountability Board did something it almost never does: it voted unanimously against a recommendation from its own staff.

You may assume such unusual action would be a result of a pressing concern or great urgency; however that is not the case.

Instead, the Board mandated the acceptance of electronic proof of residency. Meaning, electors proving where they live may now use their smart phone, tablet or laptop to display a utility bill, bank statement, or several other documents.

While this certainly makes it easier for some to vote, there was not a reason to hastily approve the policy. Electors already had relatively simple means of registering. Wisconsinites could register by mail up to 20 days before an election, register in their clerk's office after that, and even register on Election Day with an acceptable printed document. It took only a slight amount of personal responsibility.

When the issue was brought before the Board, however, it seemed many members were more concerned about how they are perceived by others rather than making sound judgment. Little discussion went to real concerns like impracticably small phone screens or liability for broken electronics. Instead, they chuckled back and forth that they are not dinosaurs and pointed out that they often use technology in their personal lives.

I, too, embrace technology and understand that electronic media is steadily replacing traditional paper. Certainly, election administration must keep up and not at the expense of integrity.

The Board's staff recommendation clearly states this was not the right time to make such an important change, and I would defer to their expert opinion.

Mike Haas, staff counsel for the GAB, wrote in an August 28, 2012 memo that they "[need] to further research whether the Board may permit the use of such electronic documents under current law, and whether it should do so as a policy matter. These decisions require consultation ... [with] our municipal clerk partners and the public..."

Instead, the Board ignored both concerns and approved electronic documents. Clerks and poll workers will now be forced to try to view the many forms of proof of residency on tiny cell phone screens.

Apparently, it does not matter that a utility bill on a 3-inch phone screen looks very different than a paper bill on an 8.5x11-inch sheet of paper. Making things worse, many poll workers are seniors unfamiliar with smart phones and already face long lines and great pressure at the registration table.

Neither of these problems appeared to concern the Board, and they trouble me. I understand the need to modernize. This is not the time. The Board should have waited to fully discuss the implications with clerks, poll workers, and the public.

-- Lazich, a Republican, represents Wisconsin's 28th Senate District.

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