Vote count 'human error' shadows Wisconsin Supreme Court election

A county clerk discovered 14,000 unrecorded votes, which just happened to turn the election for the man she once worked for. "Human error," as she claims, or something more nefarious?

By , Staff writer

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    Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus holds a news conference in Waukesha, Wis. Thursday, April 7, to explain how incorrect vote totals in the state's Supreme Court race were released on election night.
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Questions are being raised in Wisconsin regarding the party ties of a local county clerk whose discovery of about 14,000 unrecorded votes is assuring a victory for the Republican incumbent in last week’s election for state Supreme Court. A federal investigation into the matter was requested late Friday night.

Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus became the center of the controversy Thursday when she announced she failed to record the votes of Brookfield, a city located outside Milwaukee that typically leans Republican.

Her actions turned the tables of the election, which was being tracked as an informal referendum on the policies of Gov. Scott Walker (R).

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IN PICTURES: Wisconsin protest signs

For nearly two months, Wisconsin has been in the national spotlight regarding a bill Gov. Walker introduced that erodes union power in the state.

Late last month, a circuit court judge issued a temporary restraining order barring the bill from becoming law, saying more time was needed to review the procedure Senate Republicans took to push the bill through in order to make it law.

The Walker administration says the legality of its actions is sound and has moved forward in adopting the law.

The case will likely end up being decided by the state’s Supreme Court, which brought unprecedented attention on last Tuesday’s election, pitting incumbent Justice David Prosser, backed by Republicans, and Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, favored by Democrats.

Before Ms. Nickolaus announced her mistake, Ms. Kloppenburg seemed headed for victory. She had a 204-vote lead out of 1.5 million votes cast and a recount was in the works.

The unrecorded ballots discovered Thursday favor Mr. Prosser, putting him ahead by 7,500 votes. Nickolaus told reporters that her mistake was “human error” and she apologized.

Nickolaus is now under scrutiny for her ties to the state’s Republican party. She worked as a data analyst and computer specialist for the state’s Republican caucus for 13 years, a time window that included Prosser’s brief tenure as Assembly speaker in 1995 and 1996.

A 2002 corruption probe investigating state employees working on campaigns on state time led to indictments of five legislative leaders, but Nickolaus received immunity from prosecutors and resigned that same year.

As circuit clerk of the Waukesha County Board, she was criticized for not being cooperative with the county’s director of administration, resulting in an audit following the 2010 election that showed she failed to follow proper security and backup procedures and would not share passwords with her superiors.

US Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) of Wisconsin is asking US Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a federal investigation into the handling of votes in Waukesha County. In a letter sent Friday night, Rep. Baldwin wants the Justice Department Public Integrity Section, which investigates election crime, to see if votes were mishandled following Tuesday’s election.

“Numerous constituents have contacted me expressing serious doubt that this election was a free and fair one,” she wrote. “They fear, as I do, that political interests are manipulating the results.”

State Democrat leaders are also calling for investigations into the matter and Kloppenburg announced she would raise money for a recount. State Rep. Peter Barca told the Green Bay Post-Gazette Friday that Nickolaus’ actions “doesn’t instill confidence in her competence or integrity.”

Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, a non-partisan and non-profit advocacy group, said in a statement that his state “deserves elections that are fair, clean and transparent” and that “there is a history of secrecy and partisanship surrounding [Nickolaus] and there remain unanswered questions.”

Election night numbers are not yet verified in the election as 12 of the state’s 72 counties have not yet finalized the canvass process, which is expected to take place late next week. Once that is complete, candidates have three days to file a request for a recount.

Prosser told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel he “met [Nickolaus] a number of times in the last few months” but did not remember whether or not she worked for him during his time as Assembly speaker.

“I can’t say it didn’t happen, but I don’t remember,” he said.

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin protest signs

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