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Can you read these names? (copy)

The Government Accountability Board is being criticized for strictly interpreting a law requiring signers of nomination papers to legibly print their names. The names circled in red were disallowed as illegible.

State Republicans seemed irritated last week that elections officials were applying a new Republican-backed rule requiring those who sign candidate nominating and recall petitions to “legibly print” their names as well.

It turns out that poor penmanship knows no party, as names on nominating petitions for Republicans and Democrats alike were being struck as illegible by clerks at the Government Accountability Board.

For Republicans, it’s got to be a bummer to try to game the electoral system — and then find out the electoral system’s gaming you.

It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to make it easier for folks to read the names on nominating and other kinds of election petitions.

In fact, Democratic state Reps. Terese Berceau and JoCasta Zamarripa said candidates had been asking signers to print their names well before the state started requiring it.

But the motivation behind the Republicans’ move to enshrine the practice in law seems to be the effort to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2012, when Walker supporters complained it was impossible to read many of the names on the recall petition.

The legibility requirement comes off as just another, albeit less egregious, in a series of what those on the left characterize as Republican attempts to short-circuit democracy — but are probably better characterized as just flat-out partisan attacks.

The most egregious — and unnecessary, given a paucity of voter fraud — of these is requiring a photo ID to vote. Limiting the hours in which clerks can allow in-person absentee voting is probably a close second.

The (not illogical) thinking among Republicans is that Democratic voters are less likely to have the money, ability or other wherewithal to get photo IDs or to a polling place.

The new legibility standard, Assembly Bill 420, was authored by Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and passed the Assembly on a mostly party-line vote and by voice vote in the Senate.

It was a minor piece in a “series of what I consider voter suppression” efforts, said Berceau, a member of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections.

Democratic state Rep. Frederick Kessler, also a member of the committee, called the law “ridiculous” but said Democrats had been concentrating their efforts on the major GOP election changes, like voter ID.

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As long as you have a signer’s address — which was already required — you can figure out the identity of the signer, he said.

No one was tossed from a ballot for statewide office solely because of illegible signatures, but in the future, candidates who happen to choose petition signers with particularly bad handwriting might not be so lucky.

In testimony before the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, GAB director Kevin Kennedy and Wisconsin County Clerks Association Legislative Committee Chairman Jamie Aulik warned lawmakers of the pitfall of making penmanship a prerequisite to democratic participation.

“It could slow down the process, and it may lead to more petitions failing to qualify,” Kennedy said during a public hearing on Oct. 16, according to his prepared remarks.

“It basically comes down to what’s legible for one filing officer might not be legible for another,” is what Aulik told me about the message he delivered to the committee.

Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch also sponsored an amendment to the bill that would have removed the word “legibly.” It didn’t get a vote in the Republican-controlled Assembly.

Ott did not respond to my phone messages, and a staffer for Republican Rep. Kathleen Bernier, chairwoman of the Committee on Campaigns and Elections, said she did not want to comment until after the GAB meets on Tuesday.

But last week, they suggested to this newspaper that the GAB’s interpretation of the law was overly strict.

“The GAB is being very, very careful to not be attacked for not doing the right thing,” Berceau said.

At least Republicans have — if unintentionally — hit upon an election “reform” that punishes both major parties equally.

That’s not as bad as the likes of voter ID, but it’s also not as good as leaving well enough alone.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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