By James Rowen for   Published Feb 08, 2005 at 5:02 AM

{image1} The announcement of a multi-level law enforcement task force to examine problems with the 2004 election in the City of Milwaukee won't unearth the political treasure that Republicans and their talk show boosters are dreaming about -- a vast left-wing conspiracy that stole Wisconsin's electoral votes from the winner, President George W. Bush.

The GOP-er's dream scenario is that investigators can connect election-eve tire slashings, incomplete or erroneous voter documentation and sloppy decision-making by overwhelmed poll workers to a hidden Democratic Party bunker behind a secret door in City Hall where Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett oversaw Fraud Central like a crazed Wizard of Oz.

Well, dream on. That's not what happened.

First, let's talk about the tire-slashings, which led to the charging of five people, including the sons of now-U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore and former Mayor Marvin Pratt.

The tire-slashings damaged a parking lot filled with vans rented by Republican election workers. It was stupid and criminal behavior, but let's also remember that it was a prank that got out of hand.

This is a good time to recall another high-profile prank that went awry last year in Milwaukee near UWM, when a group of nerdy "Rocky Horror Picture Show" devotees knocked down and frightened a young woman.

Though the perpetrators could have been charged with felonious or sexual assault, District Attorney E. Michael McCann charged them with much lighter violations. His decision was controversial. It infuriated a lot of women. It infuriated people like me who live in the neighborhood. But McCann did what he did judiciously -- not to discount what the young men had done -- but mercifully, to save the defendants' futures.

I'd argue that a similar and compassionate standard be applied in the tire-slashing case, too. These offenses should be handled by the justice system thoughtfully and with punishment far short of the felony convictions that are possible, and that some Republicans are demanding.

The resolution of the case will measure whether our courts can balance the cost of slashed tires, damage to the community and the perpetrators' families, with the real or possible disruption to the election. Heck, if these young men go to prison, then the state officials in Florida who used their power and fancy computers to disenfranchise thousands of African-American voters in the 2000 election should get life imprisonment at hard labor.

Provisions for restitution, community service and other probation-related options are in the law for a reason. Using them in this case would have a healing effect in the city and a productive result for the young people, while jail time, a prison record and the indelible shaming from heavy-handed sentences would not.

It's really a simple question: Do we ruin five lives over slashed tires?

When all is said and done, most of the election problems in Milwaukee will be attributed to some poorly trained or overwhelmed election workers, to record crowds and to long lines.

The election was not fraudulent. The tire-slashings were not ordered by senior Democrats or Kerry campaign advisers who were also multi-tasking to trick the system and enable people to vote twice or otherwise illegally.

Want to know how and why erroneous information could get entered on registration cards? There are people in our less-than-wealthy city -- and this is a fact that may have escaped suburban politicians like GOP state Rep. Jeff Stone as he lectures Milwaukee about how to conduct a proper election -- who don't write or spell well.

Some can't even write at all, but they voted -- and good for them -- because they have the same right to vote as Jeff Stone or Rick Graber, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

When I was in a long line of people at City Hall waiting to vote absentee, the couple behind me could not read the small print on the forms. I loaned them my cheap, drugstore magnifying reading glasses, and they passed the glasses down the line where a half-dozen more people were grateful to use them.

The couple was elderly. They did not speak the queen's English with perfection. They appeared to be low-income. They did not know that non-prescription glasses are available at the local Walgreen's, though at $10 or $12, the glasses might have been out of their reach. Without them, I can guarantee you that their forms would have been a mess, and perhaps, would have shown up as someone's Voter Fraud Exhibit A.

And by the way, I'd have been unable to get the information in the right place without my magnifiers, either, and I have a master's degree in English.

Maybe instead of mandatory voter ID at the polls we need election forms with bigger print and baskets of reading glasses to help people fill in their forms correctly. That's how you cut down on election "fraud.''

The political problem for City Hall, and also for Democrats statewide, is that all the election troubles and the banner headlines are giving Republicans fresh ammunition to dump on Milwaukee and Democrats.

Stone and others have stepped forward with their predictable and dysfunctional solution -- another bill to require mandatory voter photo ID.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle will veto the bill because he and Democrats in the Legislature are correct when they say it amounts to state-sponsored voter suppression. Poor people change addresses frequently, have less access to transportation and have a host of other reasons to be less likely to get that ID before Election Day.

Poor people tend to vote Democratic. Republicans know that. So voter photo ID is nothing less than using the power of government to help Republicans win elections. That's the way the government functions in one-party states, not in democracies.

While the voter ID sideshow moves to the state Capitol, Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council need to take strong fiscal and administrative measures to address election staffing and training problems. They need to do this for political and public policy reasons, and they need to do it aggressively.

It's true that the actual amount of bad documentation that worked its way into the massive turnout in November 2004 was miniscule. But you need to get as humanly close as possible to zero when it comes to errors in election management, or else you reap the nasty whirlwind that is enveloping Milwaukee City Hall.

So what else needs to be done in the wake of the 2004 election?

The investigative task force needs to do its work and prosecute whatever illegal activity it finds. If it discovers, as happened in Racine, that paid canvassers freelanced and deliberately filled in bogus registration information to make extra money, then charge those people. And recommend some safeguards, like background checks and bonds for paid canvassers.

And Republicans should rein in their rhetoric and muzzle their AM radio attack dogs. They are deliberately spreading a myth about a fraudulent election -- and that's a form of election fraud, too.

The GOP needs to remember that tolerance for voter suppression is also zero, that open elections are the Wisconsin tradition, and that requiring a mandatory photo ID in order to cast your ballot is a big step in the opposite direction.

- Rowen is a veteran journalist and policy-maker who formerly advised ex-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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