In The News
Imagine what 7,500 surprise votes should tell us
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted April 8, 2011
On Thursday, April 7, in the required statewide canvas of election results, the Milwaukee County election clerk reported 7,500 more votes discovered in West Allis for JoAnne Kloppenburg, giving her an insurmountable lead in the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court. That raised West Allis turnout of eligible voters to a believable 39% and will force her opponent, incumbent David Prosser, to have to pay $5 a ward if he wants to challenge her victory, since the new margin puts her safely above the half of 1% threshold where the government pays for the recount.
This is shocking news, and I made it up.
I made it up after a night of talking to law enforcement leaders and public officials about the dumfounding and frankly unbelievable discovery of 7,500 more votes for Prosser in GOP stranglehold Waukesha County. It was those I interviewed who offered my “what if” news story as an alternative.
One of them, Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, is always at pains to wait for evidence and play fair to both sides, so he is taking Waukesha County election clerk Kathy Nickolaus at her word that this was human error, however bizarre. But having endured GOP invective and flat invention of voter fraud in Milwaukee, which he has actively pursued on his own and as a part of a statewide taskforce, having listened for years to the real stories of disenfranchised voters and falsehoods of made-up disenfranchisement and having scrupulously examined every kind of voter error in the books, he insists that fairness should cut both ways.
So he raised my scenario. Chisholm has no doubts that if 7,500 votes for Kloppenburg suddenly popped up in his terrain, “There would be state police squads flying in immediately and every computer and ballot box would be confiscated and secured instantly.”
Of course, nothing has happened in Waukesha except apologies for “human error” and no authorized law enforcement agency stepping forward to secure anything. This despite the reality that in these technology-sophisticated days voter fraud is far more likely from manipulation of computer files, from playing with Excel templates and Access macros, than prevented by flashing photo IDs in front of octogenarian poll workers, as a new state law to disenfranchise older voters and students would soon mandate.
Chisholm’s scenario is doubly apt. The Republicans would instantly cry foul if such an explosion of uncounted votes occurred in Democratic leaning Milwaukee two days after Associated Press tallies. But why hasn’t the same fair approach to surprise erupted in Republican-leaning Waukesha County?
Is there some pretense that conservatives are more law abiding than liberals? That sure vanished given Gov. Walker. The polite insistence of thousands of Walker protesters in Madison has now been measured against the governor’s efforts to hold midnight votes and flout court restraining orders to force his own will. So who looks like the scofflaw to a lot of citizens? Particularly in a state that saw 19 counties whose majority voted for Walker backing Kloppenburg over Prosser April 5.
So now a lot of citizens who want to believe in impartiality are reading what happened in Waukesha as more of the nasty same. If that is jumping ahead of the facts, it is a taint that Walker and his cronies’ behavior has fostered.
The smell grows because the county clerk in charge is a former Republican operative in the GOP Madison caucus when Prosser was the hiring Assembly leader. And in 2010 she was questioned and criticized by a conservative Waukesha County board for her secretive “I’m in charge” haughty style and personal-computer election procedures without sufficient backups. Such is the attitude fostered by political power.
It double stinks because Nickolaus sat quietly on the surprise votes for more than 24 hours, allowing Kloppenburg to declare victory based on unchallenged unofficial results (which certainly gave her a chance to embarrass the candidate while also providing more time before “verifying” such results) and because conservative talk radio started taking about the new figures in Brookfield before she announced them. (Just how did they know?)
It further carries a horrific odor because at the best it is what UWM Prof. Mordecai Lee, a former legislator who is often called upon for balanced political perspective, told a national TV audience smacks of “incompetence” and easily calls into question the whole process of putting partisans in charge of what the state has long professed to be a balanced, professional process.
More odor. The “found” votes push the Waukesha electoral turnout in a spring election to presidential proportions, some 47% of eligible voters, more than double what was expected and higher than in counties were there were active other races (countywide in Waukesha there was only this one and a mild circuit court race). Even the good people of Brookfield don’t believe they turned out in such numbers and now know there will be investigators knocking at their doors to verify such a massive turnout.
Kloppenburg’s campaign has already filed an open records request in the case. Wisconsin Citizen Action is not alone is calling for US Attorney James Santelle to impound computers, ballots and conduct a federal investigation.
Chisholm and other officials we spoke to are somewhat outside the loop, but federal investigation will be the main avenue -- given the lack of a brave skeptical Waukesha law official willing to fly in the face of the deep-seated party powers. Even more unlikely would be expecting an honest Wisconsin attorney general, since the current one is a serial political player. But even if the feds move fast, reports are mounting that the GOP is switching its legal teams who were working on the canvas and recount to block overly scrupulous investigation.
It’s too early to simply wave away the odor and it will take weeks to figure out what really happened in Waukesha. But the unbelievable discovery – overlooking votes in the second biggest city in the county? -- has newly demonstrated how easily the one-eyed computer expert can be king in a bureaucracy of the proudly unsophisticated in technology, as many conservatives have self-proclaimed.
Now these residents are learning they are being run by people notorious for flaunting their more advanced, however limited, computer expertise. They have created systems that run rings around people who have trouble typing on a keyboard. What just happened has awakened the curiosity of a host of knowledgeable computer people around the state and the nation who well know the vulnerability of database programs and how to sign in and check what’s really on those Waukesha computer networks that so control public information and money.
Another consequence is more undoing of the Walker myth. After the April 5 election, he had the audacity to divide Wisconsin into two worlds, Madison and the rest of the state that by definition supports him. It now turns out that the division is an entire state that questions him vs. Waukesha County. Remove Waukesha County from the election equation, which Nickolaus’ actions if they prove illegal could cause, and Kloppenburg wins in a runaway.
Walker’s actions in Madison have certainly spurred calls for his recall and the more immediate ones of senators who supported him. Now add in, legitimate or not, the surprise turnaround in his only secure county (Washington and Ozaukee lean his way, but things are changing there) and all this casts further doubts and causes fresh anger about the nature of his operations, which every day look more covert and un-American.
But that’s not the biggest problem just created for homespun, principled Wisconsin. It has always prided itself in the fairness and incorruptibility of its voting system. We are not Chicago of the 1960s is a common cry from left and right.
But now? No longer do you find much confidence in the state that power and manipulation for political gain have not corrupted the basic ability to count votes honestly and fairly. That lingering skepticism now becomes the biggest consequence of the Walker legacy.