Jason Stein and Larry Sandler
Apr. 7, 2011 (McClatchy-Tribune Regional News delivered by Newstex) — MADISON — With the largest number of local clerks of any state in the nation, Wisconsin’s Balkanized system of running elections could make for an epic statewide recount, experts said Wednesday.
And with a possible legal challenge lying beyond the likely recount, any irregularities with local ballots now could feed into potential courtroom debates later.
With 1,850 elected or appointed municipal clerks who administer elections at the local level, Wisconsin has roughly one-fifth of all such clerks in the nation, said Doug Chapin, director of Election Initiatives at the Pew Center on the States in Washington. That will complicate any effort to run down exactly how many votes were cast in each village, city and town for each candidate, he said.
“It’s just the sheer number of places that need to be recounted and recanvassed and finalized,” Chapin said. “These are interesting times across the country but it doesn’t get much more interesting than Wisconsin these days.”
The race between the more conservative incumbent Justice David Prosser and his more liberal challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg — and ultimately the ideological bent of the Supreme Court — could hinge on factors both small and large, experts said. That could range from the votes cast in a rural town and handled by an overworked clerk up to a ruling from the Supreme Court itself.
Often, recounts don’t change the outcome in races.
But based on the slim margin of victory in the Supreme Court race, a recount could change the result, said Minnesota journalist Jay Weiner, author of a book about the recount that decided the 2008 U.S. Senate race in his state. In that contest, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman initially led by 215 votes out of about 3 million cast but ultimately lost to Democratic candidate Al Franken after the recount.
With a turnout as large as Wisconsin’s 1.5 million, Weiner said a margin of 200 to 300 votes “is right there on a flippable election. If it’s 500, it’s probably not going to happen. That 204 (vote margin) is the sweet spot of flippability.”
Despite the heated emotions behind the closely split vote, Weiner said, “It’s really important for people to crank down the rhetoric and just let the process play out,” to ensure the public has confidence in it. By that standard, a recount process that lasts a few weeks or months could allow more transparency and increase public trust, he said.
But if the recount result is challenged in the courts, the legal process could draw “an army of lawyers” aligned with political parties and raise more questions in voters’ minds, Weiner warned.
Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said he also expected political parties, their operatives and their attorneys to be heavily involved in the recount process in what is officially a nonpartisan race.
In Wisconsin, elections are run by nonpartisan clerks in towns, villages and cities working in conjunction with clerks who in all but one of the 72 counties are elected as Democrats and Republicans. At the state level, elections are overseen by the Government Accountability Board, which is nonpartisan and run by a board of six former judges.
Only Wisconsin, Michigan and the New England states run elections at the municipal rather than county level.
“It absolutely makes it more challenging because we have more people’s decisions we have to review,” said Kevin Kennedy, director of the state Government Accountability Board.
Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, called Wisconsin’s elections system “probably the most decentralized in all the states.” That can make the system more personalized and accountable to local voters but it also heightens the chances that a recount could turn up election irregularities from one city or town to another.
“We’re going to see that the process is not perfect,” Burden said. “It’s going to take a while to work out. Democracy is a little ugly sometimes.”
Wisconsin hasn’t seen a statewide recount in more than two decades, heightening the uncertainty over how the process might play out. The likely recount and any possible legal challenge would put the state’s system under an “electron microscope,” Chapin said.
On the positive side, in recent years the state has made several changes to make elections run more uniformly, Burden said.
Most notable was the implementation in 2006 of the Statewide Voter Registration System, which was mandated by the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 and which all local clerks now use to enter their voter registrations. Before this statewide database, clerks in about 1,500 Wisconsin municipalities didn’t even do voter registration.
One added question is whether a candidate will request a standard recount or a “hand recount.”
In a regular recount, officials examine the ballots individually and then count them a second time with their usual methods, Burden and Kennedy said. They also make routine checks such as verifying that the number of votes cast in a given ward matches the number of ballots delivered there.
But in a hand recount, local officials would have to count the ballots one by one without the use of a machine. To trigger a hand recount, the candidate requesting it must prove in court that it would lead to a “more reliable result,” Kennedy said.
“That might be something we end up litigating here,” Kennedy said.
Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this article.
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