Eight 17-year-olds voted illegally in spring elections in Janesville

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, November 2, 2016

JANESVILLE—Eight Janesville 17-year-olds voted illegally in the spring elections this year. They were among 258 who did the same thing statewide.

Those illegal votes were counted because the voting system requires a secret ballot, so no one can tell which ballots these teenagers had cast.

But before you call for extreme punishments for these young people, consider the facts and the law in Wisconsin:

-- Voters must be 18 years or older on Election Day. Those who violate this rule can be prosecuted for a Class I felony, with maximum penalties that include imprisonment for three years and six months.

-- In Wisconsin, a 17-year-old who commits a crime is presumed to be an adult and can be tried in adult court.

-- District attorneys decide whom to charge with a crime. They can decline to prosecute, based on the circumstances.

The facts include these:

-- In some states, 17-year-olds are allowed to vote in presidential primaries if they will turn 18 by Election Day in November.

-- Somebody assumed the same rule applied in Wisconsin, and that information was repeated as fact.

-- A small number of 17-year-olds went to the polls believing they had every right to vote. They registered using their correct birth dates, which showed they were 17.

Some pollworkers, including some in Ashwaubenon, caught the mistake and kept the teens from voting, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported. Some did not.

A State Elections Board review of voter registrations later caught the mistakes and informed the local clerks where the teens voted, including Janesville.

Janesville Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek did what the law required: He referred the violations to District Attorney David O'Leary.

O'Leary was not available for comment Wednesday but it's likely he reviewed these facts and decided not to prosecute because the underage Janesvillians believed they were acting legally.

“We've heard anecdotally that some DAs pursued deferred-prosecution agreements, given that many of these appear to be unintentional violations,” said Elections Board spokesman Reid Magney in an email.

Godek said the case prompted him to require pollworkers to review birth dates on registration forms, something the law does not require them to do.

Signs are now posted at polling places stating the date on which a person who turns 18 becomes eligible to vote, Godek said.

Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson said she sent copies of that sign to all the county's municipal clerks.

The story shows it's possible for an ineligible person to vote, and there's no way to uncount the illegally cast ballot.

“But you will get caught,” Tollefson said.

Registration information goes to the state, where officials check it against Division of Motor Vehicles records, and underage voter would be flagged, Tollefson said.

But those checks are not immediate on Election Day, so those who register on Election Day might slip through, Tollefson said.

State election software also flags a voter who tries to vote more than once, Tollefson said, and for absentee voters, voting again on Election Day should not be possible because pollworkers check to see if that person has voted early, Tollefson said.

Felons who have not completed their sentences, by the way, also are not eligible to vote, and pollworkers receive lists of those people.

Those who register must sign an oath on their registration forms certifying that they are eligible to vote, but even so, someone could lie, Tollefson acknowledged.

That oath seems to do the trick because instances of voter fraud are “very, very rare,” Tollefson said.

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