Political Lowe-Down: Reviewing the recall

MADISON -- Recall signatures could write a new chapter in Wisconsin politics, but who is looking at these signatures to make sure they're legitimate? One million signatures were turned in in the recall effort against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators. Four groups are working to review these recall signatures, and FOX6's Mike Lowe recently sat down with each group to check in on the process.

There are the Democrats and the Republicans, the third parties and the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board -- all four groups have been working with the recall petitions in some way during this recall process.

The process began at the Government Accountability Board headquarters in Madison, where Democrats said they did everything they could to ensure signatures were legitimate. Democrats showed FOX6 their internal vetting procedures during a never-before-seen look at the busiest of nearly two dozen Democratic signature processing centers, in the final days of the signature-collection effort.

Alan Ginsburg is an English teacher who retired early to become one of the 20,000 Democratic volunteers inspecting the petitions before they were handed in. "It's poetry in motion. It's amazing to have somebody walk in and say 'I'm here to volunteer. We're getting just crates and crates (of recall petitions),'" Ginsburg said.

Once the volunteers arrive at the center, they begin pouring over petitions, marking mistakes and looking for loose ends. The volunteers perform a quick scan of the papers, to see if everything's filled in correctly. If not, the petition goes to the "rehab file." The petition-circulator is called back to fix the problem. Common mistakes include missing dates and forgotten check marks. When the problem is more complex, computers are utilized.

"If they are unsure where a person votes, where the address doesn't match their voting area, what we do is, we go over to a bank of computers and check the address and find out where they live," Ginsburg said.

After that, the petitions are taken to a secure room, and checked again before they're shipped to storage. "When they leave the office, we feel fairly confident that we have done as much as we can possibly do to verify all the information that is needed," Ginsburg said.

On January 17th, recall organizers made a bold claim, saying they had collected one million signatures, and saying this is the largest recall effort in the nation's history. A parade of boxes full of petitions were delivered to the Government Accountability Board headquarters in Madison, starting the 31-day clock for the government to review these petitions, and opening the one-month window for the Walker campaign to challenge any suspect signatures.

A small army of 13,000 Walker supporters began work in offices across the state to sniff out irregularities in these petitions. "I think the million signatures were more or less a number to embolden the other side. I think the real number is far from that. We put (the volunteers) to work right away. We have issued highlighters to the people who are working, and they found a tremendous amount of things to challenge. We're just advising what to challenge, and it will be reviewed by the official people," Keith Best said.

The center in Waukesha was the busiest, as volunteers scoured petitions for errors, checking dates and names to eventually bring as challenges to the GAB. "The feeling in the room is that a lot of people never felt they got a million legitimate signatures. Whether there's enough, there probably will be enough, but they don't believe anything coming from the other side. They want things to be legal and above-board," Best said.

That sentiment has inspired the so-called third-party effort. A confederation of Tea Party groups have launched "Verify the Recall," a website with 15,000 volunteers, entering and checking data from laptops in their own homes. One of those volunteers is Larry Gamble, a retired Air Force Lt. Col. "Politics wasn't something I was drawn to, but somehow, I ended up here," Gamble said.

Gamble says he was drawn to the Tea Party's message, and attended the lakefront rally in 2009. "Government just seemed to be growing and growing, and getting more in your life. That was pushing me more towards it," Gamble said.

Now, Gamble is one of the leaders of a grassroots campaign that claims its purpose is to verify, not stop the recall. Using software developed to check a recall in Texas, the Verify site can check the list of petitioners against death records, social security databases, voter registration lists, criminal records, and a host of other information to make sure the signatures are valid. The problem is, the law doesn't require that. The GAB will do a review, but not a verification. "(GAB Director) Kevin Kennedy said if Adolf Hitler signed with an address that looked plausible, it's going to count. In this day and age, Adolf Hitler is not a popular name," Gamble said.

The GAB isn't very popular with either Republicans or Democrats, but its review of the signatures will determine if the recall moves forward or not. "It's the principle of it: if the people really want this, then what we're doing with "Verify the Recall" will show every name and address is legitimate. We shouldn't find Daffy Duck. We shouldn't find Bugs Bunny. We found anomalies, so we've got to look deeper," Gamble said.

The law doesn't require an investigation into the signatures, but simply demands a review. A century-old brick building is the epicenter of the government's effort. It is a state facility about two miles east of the Capitol - a previously undisclosed location, visible only through the lens of a web camera. "It was very important to us, while we were scanning the petitions, to keep this an undisclosed location. We were very concerned about the safety of our employees, given the volatility of the rhetoric around this whole initiative," GAB Director Kevin Kennedy said.

Kennedy says 50 temporary employees, each paid $10 an hour, are pouring over petitions, marking mistakes with red pens. Kennedy says they've already gone through 15 packs of red pens! "It's a very dull type of work, but there's a certain camaraderie that's built up among them on this, and they've got tremendous leadership from our staff," Kennedy said.

There are 18 file cabinets, each with five drawers, housing the 300,000 pages of signatures, but there are also digital copies of each one available for review on 40 computer terminals. "We have two sets of eyes on every single line of the petition," Kennedy said.

The GAB's deadline to review the petitions was extended until March 17th, but officials say they may need even more time. Then, the challenge process begins. Kennedy says his job is essentially to make sure the forms are filled out correctly, not to actively seek out fraud.

A judge's order required the GAB to do a more thorough vetting, including looking for duplicate signatures, but that order was vacated during the appeals process. "A lot of the criticism you hear from the outside - they're taking a different presumption. They're presuming it's invalid on everything, but we give credit to what's on the face of the petition," Kennedy said.

As four groups fight over what the signatures really say, the face of the petitions could change the face of state politics.

Governor Walker has been granted one extension to review petitions, but says his team needs another two weeks to look into the petitions. His argument will be heard by the GAB Friday.