Eric Toney, the Fond du Lac County district attorney and GOP nominee for attorney general in Wisconsin, has charged five voters with felonies for the innocent mistake of having a UPS store listed as their voting address. If elected, Toney could theoretically target voters all across Wisconsin for similar errors.
Do you care about the freedom to vote and know your vote will be counted and won’t be overturned by politicians?
That freedom that is increasingly under attack from former President Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans in Wisconsin. For nearly two years, Trump and his allies have taken a pickaxe to democracy, chipping away at voting rights, trust in elections, and the premise that sometimes, the Republican candidate loses.
Trump’s war on democracy has forced other Republican politicians to take a side: defending democracy or attacking it.
Many have chosen the latter, with 200 of 541 Republican nominees for the House, Senate, governor, secretary of state and attorney general fully denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election, according to reporting from FiveThirtyEight. These candidates either said the election was stolen from Trump or actively attempted to overturn the results.
Another 61 candidates have raised unfounded questions about the election and refused to say it was legitimate, while 88 more have accepted the results with reservations, meaning they think President Joe Biden won, but still had questions about the integrity of voting in 2020, despite the fact that it’s been heralded as “the most secure” election in our history.
Eric Toney, the Republican nominee for attorney general (AG) in Wisconsin, is one of those 88 candidates with questions.
The Fond du Lac County district attorney has acknowledged Biden won the presidency but has taken a “tough-on-fraud” stance during his campaign for AG, charging five voters with felonies for the innocent mistake of having their mailing address at a UPS store listed as their voting address.
Under Wisconsin law, voters must register at the address they live at—though at least some of the voters charged say they didn’t know that and used the UPS Store as their address for decades.
Toney’s prosecution of the cases has made at least one of the defendants never want to vote again. Jamie Wells—who voted for Trump in 2020—and her husband, Sam, face up to three and a half years in prison and maximum fines of $10,000 each, and their legal bills alone could surpass $17,000, according to Wisconsin Watch’s reporting.
“[Toney] seems to think I’m a criminal,” Wells told Wisconsin Watch. “That’s the part that upsets me most of anything.”
Wells told detectives she and her husband spend most of their time in Wisconsin but also go to Louisiana—where the couple met—to escape the cold. Sam works on farms all across Wisconsin, so rather than spend all that time apart, the couple live in a 42-foot trailer and lack a physical home address.
Wells told Wisconsin Watch she considers Fond du Lac home and told the detective who interviewed her that she listed her mailing address–a PO box at the UPS Store–when registering to vote because it was her “home base.”
According to the criminal complaint, Markeis Carter, another voter charged by Toney, appeared “very apologetic” upon learning he couldn’t register to vote using a PO Box. Jeffrey Tesroete, meanwhile, told law enforcement he was living out of his truck at the time and registered using the UPS Store PO box because he was able to list that as an address on his license with the DMV. The law does include an exception for voters who lack housing, but that requires additional documentation.
The detective assigned to the case was unable to find Lawrence Klug, the fifth voter charged by Toney.
UpNorthNews’ efforts to reach Jamie and Sam Wells, Carter, and Klug were unsuccessful. Jeffrey Tesroete declined to comment.
The Toney campaign did not respond to requests for comment and UpNorthNews was unable to reach Toney via the Fond du Lac County District Attorney’s Office.
The police investigation and eventual charges were triggered by a citizen complaint, Toney told reporters in February. The Republican said he hoped the charges would educate voters about the law requiring them to register to vote using a home address.
“This is an important opportunity for education on this issue,” Toney said.
Legal experts have criticized Toney’s actions, however, describing them as “a real abuse of (prosecutorial) discretion” that could make voters think twice about whether it’s worth voting at all.
The Wisconsin State Journal editorial board also criticized Toney for “fanning irrational fears of voter fraud” and “throwing the book at ordinary people who made small mistakes when casting ballots to participate in their democracy.”
As the editorial board noted, Toney is the only prosecutor who charged voters for registering to vote using a PO box, even though at least 161 other residents registered using either UPS Store or US Post Office addresses in Wisconsin, according to Wisconsin Watch.
“They aren’t being prosecuted,” the Board wrote of these voters. “A warning not to do it again would have been the commonsense solution.”
Wells told Wisconsin Watch that the ordeal had left her in tears even though she’s “not a crier.”
Election officials have also drawn Toney’s attention. The Republican has said he would criminally charge all five members of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) for their administration over the 2020 election, if he could. Toney does not have jurisdiction over the WEC, but he previously called on Gov. Tony Evers to remove members of the commission because they did not allow so-called “special voting deputies” into nursing homes in 2020 to assist residents with voting.
“They went rogue,” Toney said of the commissioners. “What they did was illegal. They committed crimes and they should be held accountable.”
Wisconsin law requires local election clerks to dispatch special voting deputies to nursing homes to help give residents a chance to vote. Once these deputies have tried to make two visits, they can then send mail-in ballots to residents instead.
Of course, the 2020 elections occurred against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which spread like wildfire in nursing homes and led to nearly 2,000 deaths in Wisconsin nursing homes during the first year of the pandemic alone.
In those early days of the pandemic, when Wisconsin was under a safer-at-home order and nursing homes were severely restricting visits from family members, the WEC decided not to send in the deputies. The commission later extended that order through the Nov. 2020 election and instead mailed ballots to nursing home residents who asked for them.
Those extenuating circumstances have not stopped Toney from pushing for WEC members to be removed and punished.
In November, voters will decide who will be Wisconsin’s next AG in elections that could determine the future of Wisconsin. While the AG can’t directly legislate or write laws, they do enforce them, and with election deniers running up and down the ballot in Wisconsin, the AG’s ability to defend the will of Wisconsin’s voters has taken on more importance than ever before. And so too has the AG’s discretion in deciding if and when to charge voters themselves for innocent mistakes.
It remains to be seen whether Toney’s prosecutions are successful, but either way, as the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board put it, “statewide voters should remember Toney’s willingness to harass and harm people for perceived and narrow political advantage.”