Wisconsin mayor faces possible felony for ballot photo

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Add a Wisconsin mayor to the list of voters who violated the state’s election law prohibiting sharing pictures of completed ballots.

Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Zach Vruwink, 26, faces a possible felony after posting online a picture of his ballot in the primary for his re-election. A City Council candidate saw the post and filed a complaint with the district attorney, who was debating moving forward with charges as of Thursday.

Despite warnings from the Government Accountability Board – which governs elections in Wisconsin – the issue has come up in multiple elections in the last few years as voters photograph their ballots and share them on social media.

“I understand the law’s intent is to protect the integrity of the voting process,” Vruwink wrote in a text message. “This post was in no way election fraud.”

Vruwink said he was unaware the act was a crime and that he contacted the GAB after taking the photo down Wednesday. The GAB said the law is in place to prevent the sale of votes in elections.

“The law is clear that you cannot show your ballot to anyone, and taking a picture of your ballot is one way of doing that,” GAB spokesman Reid Magney said.

Taking a picture of a completed ballot doesn’t inherently violate state law. But a photo that is shown to someone else or ends up online can bring Class I felony charges, punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The GAB issued stern warnings ahead of 2012 recall elections against showing ballots to anyone. It put in place rules against observers taking photos at the polls in 2010.

Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate was warned in 2012 after posting a photo of his ballot during the recall elections against Gov. Scott Walker and other legislators. St. Croix County Republican Party Chairman Jesse Garza was also guilty of violating the rule during the same elections. Neither was charged.

Magney said it’s not the GAB’s decision whether anyone is charged for violating the law, and that he’s not aware of anyone having been prosecuted for the crime.

“It is up to local district attorneys to determine, based on the facts of a case, whether there is evidence that a crime has been committed and whether to file charges against anyone who shows their voted ballot to someone else,” Magney said.

Vruwink voted to re-elect himself mayor over challenger Mary Jo Carson, who served three terms as the town’s mayor. The two face off again in the general election on April 1.

Wood County District Attorney Craig Lambert said Thursday he would find another prosecutor to take the case. Lambert has close friends who work for the city and said he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict in whatever decision he made.

Vruwink said he was seeking representation and that he couldn’t comment further.

Steve Abrahamson, the City Council candidate who filed the complaint, said he planned to meet with Lambert to talk about the case Thursday afternoon. Abrahamson said elected officials should be held to a higher standard than other voters.

“I’m just a common person and I knew that law was on the books. I don’t understand why an elected official wouldn’t,” Abrahamson said, adding he thinks the felony charge is too severe for the crime.

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