RACINE, WI – A City of Racine clerk asked an election observer for the Racine County Republican Party to leave Festival Hall after refusing to follow the rules regarding where he could stand.
But Marty Prujansky, a first-time election observer, saw the situation differently. He said the designated areas did not allow him — or any of the other election observers — to see much. When he asked Coolidge several times to designate another area, Coolidge called Prujansky a trouble maker and told him to leave.
This prompted the Racine County Republican Party to ask the Wisconsin Elections Commission and the Racine County District Attorney’s Office to investigate the matter.
In years past, election observers have sat behind the poll workers. But this year, City Clerk Tara Coolidge had them behind the voters — not the poll workers.
“Martin was trying to walk outside of the observer section to be able to walk behind all of the books and just have free rein to the polling location,” she said. “He had been told multiple times, hey you can’t do that. None of the other observers were doing that. But after three or four times of talking to him, I asked him to leave.”
Observers couldn’t observe
Prujansky denies that he was trying to walk all over the place, but he did ask Coolidge to make changes to the designated areas.
He told her the observer section was positioned too far away to tell what was going on. The four-foot by four-foot section set up for the observers had several people inside them. That also made it difficult for social distancing. The section also prohibited them from observing the absentee ballots from being counted, Prujansky said.
“I could barely hear the first table or see what was going on let alone what was going on at the other 5, 6, or 7 tables,” Prujansky said.
A number of other observers — independent and Democratic — agreed with Pruzansky, he said.
“The fact is that an attorney (an election observer for the Democratic Party) sitting next to me said it’s the appearance of miss-doing. It’s the appearance of covering up something. Whether they were doing or not, who knows,” he said.
Why the buffer zone exists
The Wisconsin Elections Commission established rules for where observers could be to prevent voter and poll worker intimidation.
“You can’t just randomly have some guy come up and observe you,” said Shannon Powell, the communications director for the City of Racine. “Those are things that we look for in voter intimidation. We follow the law, but just having a free-roaming observer can be viewed as order intimidation.”
According to the Wisconsin Election Commission, people observing the election are “not entitled to view registration forms, proof of residence documents, or the observer log on Election Day.”
Observers can, however, ask to view the poll list, but not if doing so delays or disrupts the polling process.
“The chief inspector or designee has sole discretion to determine whether such documents may be viewed or photographed,” according to the state elections brochure.
COVID-19 changed where observers could stand
Due to COVID-19, election officials have the discretion to require election observers to be at least six feet away from the registration table and the poll worker tables. They can also limit observers if necessary, according to the Wisconsin Board of Elections.
But Ken Brown, a board member of the Racine County Republican Party, said there should have been a perimeter taped off around the semi-circle behind the poll workers. That way, any of the observers could see any of the different stations where poll workers interacted with voters.
“This is especially important for the absentee votes, which they were not allowed to go anywhere near — period — because of where that station is set up,” Brown said.
But Coolidge said this setup has remained the same, even during early in-person voting.
“I haven’t had any other complaints here, and we’ve been holding voting for over two weeks straight,” Coolidge said.