The challenger in the race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court has been granted a statewide recount, a decision that is creating renewed uncertainty about the outcome of a controversial collective bargaining bill that is winding its way through the state court system.
The April 5 election between incumbent Justice David Prosser and Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg attracted national attention when it became known that the court battle between Dane County officials and the administration of Gov. Scott Walker (R) over the collective-bargaining bill is likely to end up in the state's highest court.
The bill is criticized by Democrats for eroding union power among public-sector employees by forcing higher pension and health costs and limiting collective bargaining on everything but wages.
Last month, a circuit court judge issued a temporary restraining order at the request of the county’s district attorney against publishing the bill, saying Republican lawmakers rushed to make it law and, in the process, potentially violated the state’s open meetings law. Governor Walker’s administration disagreed. The next step in the case takes place May 23 when both sides are required to have their legal briefs filed in court.
The likelihood that the case will inch forward through the state’s court system brought a significant amount of money to the state court race. Republicans favor Judge Prosser, a conservative, while Democrats favor Ms. Kloppenburg.
Spending on the race illustrated just how much the collective-bargaining bill mattered to special interest groups outside the state. Eighty percent of the $5.4 million spent in the race came from special interest groups, the second highest spending total in the state’s history for any race in Wisconsin, according to data compiled from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group located in Madison. Prosser received $2.6 million and Kloppenburg $1.8 million.
Despite the influx of money, the election night outcome was tight. The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board reports that Prosser led Kloppenburg by 7,316 votes, less than 0.5 percent of the 1.5 million votes cast in the race.
Vote delay arouses suspicions
Compounding questions over the narrow margin was the revelation during vote counting that Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus had failed to report 14,315 votes. When they were counted, that pushed the election in Prosser’s favor. Ms. Nickolaus’s explanation that “human error” caused the mistaken delay in reporting the votes received the support of the Government Accountability Board. She remains under scrutiny by liberal groups, however, because of a resume that shows she once worked for 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.
Kloppenburg told supporters late Wednesday that, “there are legitimate and widespread anomalies and widespread questions about the conduct of this election, most visibly in Waukesha County.”
“With a margin this small … the importance of every vote is magnified and doubts about each vote is magnified as well,” she said.
Walker told reporters late Wednesday that Kloppenburg had the legal right to pursue a recount but “it’s highly unlikely it would change the outcome.” The Government Accountability Board approved the recount on Thursday.
Improper meeting alleged
In addition to the recount, Kloppenburg is also asking the Government Accountability Board to launch a special investigator to probe “the actions and conduct” of Nickolaus.
Her complaint not only questions the nearly two-day delay in announcing the misreported votes, but it also alleges that Prosser improperly had a meeting with Walker on April 6, one day after the election. The next day, Walker’s administration asked the state Supreme Court to get involved in the Dane County case.
Prosser and a representative for Walker both deny the meeting took place. Prosser’s campaign spokesperson told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in a statement that Kloppenburg is “wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned money to discover what election officials did on April 5 – that Justice David Prosser was reelected.”
The recount will be by hand and take place in each of the state’s 72 counties. The Government Accountability Board announced that the process will start next week.