MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin election officials on Tuesday blamed undertrained poll workers and Sen. Bernie Sanders' social media posts for dozens of instances in which 17-year-olds managed to vote in last year's state presidential primary.
A commission report found that as many as 70 teenagers in nearly 30 Wisconsin counties voted illegally in the April election. Sanders won the Democratic side of the primary; Ted Cruz won the Republican side.
Many states allow 17-year-olds who will be 18 by Election Day to vote in their primaries, but Wisconsin requires voters to be 18 to vote in its.
In its report, the commission determined that "some political campaigns" provided false information about 17-year-olds being able to vote in primaries and it circulated on social media, creating confusion and driving the Wisconsin teens to the polls.
The report doesn't name a specific candidate or provide examples of the alleged false information. But commission officials on Tuesday said it was primarily Sanders' campaign, though commission spokesman Reid Magney acknowledged that staff didn't see anything misleading from Sanders about Wisconsin laws, specifically. Magney said the report was based on "anecdotal" information the commission received from multiple sources.
Andrea Kaminski, executive director of Wisconsin's League of Women Voters chapter, told the commission she was "distressed" to read about the 17-year-olds voting, saying voters and poll workers need to be better educated about voting laws.
Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen responded by telling her that Sanders' national campaign "blurred the differences" in states' laws in its messaging and "the candidate has to have responsibility for those errors."
Asked during a break how Sanders could be held responsible for internet users misinterpreting his messages, Thomsen said he thinks candidates for national office need to keep in mind that election laws vary from state to state.
"It's your obligation to tell your campaign people and the voters what the rules are in your jurisdiction," Thomsen said. "You can just sit in D.C. and say here it is. I would hate to see youthful exuberance end up in criminal prosecution."
Sanders' campaign didn't immediately reply to an email seeking reaction to Thomsen's remarks. The Vermont senator enjoyed strong support among young voters and he pushed for the inclusion in primaries of 17-year-olds who would be eligible to vote on Election Day, successfully suing for that right in Ohio just weeks before Wisconsin's primary.
Commissioner Ann Jacobs said during Tuesday's meeting that it's unclear who's responsible for what appears online. Sanders may have said 17-year-olds could vote in one state and his supporters or kids twisted the message as it spread across the internet, she suggested.
"To say the campaign itself promulgated it may be the case, or it may not be the case," she said.
Commissioner Julie Glancey said she didn't want to point fingers at any campaigns. The panel ultimately voted unanimously to remove the phrase "some political campaigns" from the report and simply say false information spread through social media.
Thomsen added that it's troubling Wisconsin poll workers allowed the 17-year-olds to vote. The commission will look at training to "make sure we're not encouraging 17-year-olds to commit crimes."
The commission consists of three Republicans and three Democrats. Thomsen, Jacobs and Glancey are all Democrats.
The 17-year-olds who voted were referred to local prosecutors. District attorneys in counties with the most underage voters told The Associated Press they chose not to charge them because they genuinely believed they could vote and didn't intend to commit fraud.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat, told The AP on Tuesday that he has reached deferred prosecution agreements in four of the seven cases that reached his desk. Deferred prosecution agreements are deals in which first-time offenders can avoid a conviction if they satisfy conditions such as completing community service.
Ozanne said he hasn't decided whether to charge the remaining three teens. He declined to comment on whether he felt the teens intentionally tried to commit fraud.
Gov. Scott Walker told reporters in Milwaukee that 17-year-olds voting is all the more reason why voter photo identification is so important. He said he anticipates poll workers will probably make a point of checking birthdays as well as names on the cards from now on.
President Donald Trump has called for a "major investigation" into voter fraud and alleged, without any evidence, that 3 million to 5 million people may have voted illegally in the November general election. The commission report lists no instances of underage voters casting ballots in Wisconsin's general election.
Associated Press writer Cara Lombardo contributed to this report.
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