Vote-count mishap in Wisconsin election raises eyebrows, distrust

Some 14,000 votes went unreported Tuesday night in a hot election – the latest battleground for Republicans vs. labor unions. Democrats cry foul as the seat tilts toward the incumbent, a conservative. Experts, though, say such errors are common.

AP Photo/Darren Hauck
Justice David Prosser, speaks to supporters at the Seven Seas Restaurant Tuesday in Waukesha Wis. The results of Tuesday's electoin are still unknown, but Mr. Prosser received a big boost after a clerical error revealed thousands of votes had been unreported.

It may be time for Wisconsin Republicans to chalk up another victory in their feud with state Democrats and labor unions.

The unresolved race for a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat is being characterized as a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial union policy that ends most public employees' right to collective bargaining. That law, approved last month after a bitter fight, is currently being reviewed by the courts – and is likely to work its way up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Tuesday's election for the Supreme Court seat was officially nonpartisan, but special-interest groups on each side spent millions to influence the outcome. Originally thought to be neck and neck, the race took a twist Thursday with the announcement that a corrected clerical error has pushed conservative Justice David Prosser ahead of Assistant State Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg by 7,500 votes.

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin protest signs

Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus announced Thursday that “human error” resulted in her not reporting 14,000 votes from the heavily Republican county. The original statewide estimate had Justice Prosser trailing by 200 votes.

Ms. Kloppenburg’s campaign has begun raising funds for a vote recount, though it has not announced that it will seek one. Kloppenburg trails Prosser by a little more than the 0.5 percent margin that would trigger a state-funded recount.

Both campaigns made key hires to their recount teams Thursday. Prosser hired a veteran of President George W. Bush’s 2000 Florida recount team, and Kloppenburg hired a litigator who helped Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota with his contested 2008 race.

The newly reported votes have some Democrats – in Wisconsin and beyond – crying foul. The announcement “raises disturbing questions," Democrat Peter Barca, the Assembly's minority leader, said Friday in a statement. Filmmaker Michael Moore, known for his left-of-center politics, launched a barrage of sarcastic tweets late Thursday and early Friday, alleging that other hard-to-find things (e.g., Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and Osama bin Laden) had been discovered in Ms. Nickolaus’s computer.

According to Prosser, the votes did not materialize out of thin air, and his team had known about them.

“We knew the figures from other stories that had been printed, but they were not actually included in the totals reported to the Associated Press,” Prosser said in an interview Thursday with Fox News.

It's common to see discrepancies between unofficial Election Night tallies and the election results that are certified weeks later, because election officials get a more accurate count during that time, experts say.

“Most of the time when we see races decided by 10 percentage points, no one pays attention to a stray 7,000 votes,” says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s not unusual to see a change of half a percent statewide to a full percent statewide between the unofficial results and those that are certified two weeks later.”

The votes reported Thursday moved the unofficial results by about 0.5 percentage point. This case is less disconcerting than some other close races in recent history, in which discrepancies were harder to explain, says Professor Franklin.

In the 2002 election for Alabama governor, Democratic incumbent Don Siegelman was initially declared the winner, but he conceded after 6,000 votes reported as his were stricken or reassigned to Republican challenger Bob Riley. Officials said a computer glitch had caused Mr. Siegelman’s tally to be overstated, though they gave no definitive answer as to what the glitch was.

In the Wisconsin Supreme Court election, Nickolaus said she simply neglected to save her work after entering the votes for Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee.

“In Alabama, it was very hard to verify what change had taken place or independently check on it,” says Franklin. “This one seems like there is enough data to crosscheck and feel confidant.”

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