Brookfield goes missing in high court race
Arthur W. Thomas
On Thursday April 7, “Waukesha County” was trending worldwide on Twitter. Worldwide. Why, because the county clerk forgot to hit the save button.
As a result of the mistake by Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, roughly 14,000 votes from the City of Brookfield had not been counted in totals reported on election night. The mistake turned what was a slim 204 vote lead for challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg into a substantial lead for Justice David Prosser in the race for Wisconsin’s State Supreme Court.
Nickolaus realized the mistake on April 6, as she and the Board of Canvassers were reconciling the unofficial results of Tuesday’s election with the tape of the actual votes cast. According to Nickolaus, a spreadsheet with the votes from the City of Brookfield was imported into a database created by the Government Accountability Board. However, the database was not saved. As a result, Brookfield not included in the initial tallies. Once the votes were included, there was a net gain of around 7,500 votes for Prosser.
“I’m thankful that this error was caught early in the process and during the canvass,” Nickolaus said in a press conference on April 7. “The purpose of the canvass is to catch these types of errors.”
Nickolaus stressed it was not a case of votes being found.
“This is human error, which I apologize for,” said Nickolaus.
She noted that mistakes by humans in entering the data are common. For example, elsewhere in Waukesha Co., specifically the City of New Berlin, the reported vote total for one ward was initially 37 for Prosser, when in fact it was 237.
“[Human error] is common in this process, which is why that state requires us to conduct a canvass,” said Nickolaus. “Every person in Waukesha County that voted on April 5, their votes counted.”
To those who would suggest she was attempting to help Justice Prosser win the election, Nickolaus said there was an open and transparent process with representatives from both parties present. Democrat Ramona Kitzinger agreed with Nickolaus at the press conference.
“I’m the Democratic vice chair of Waukesha County, so I’m not going to stand here and tell you something that’s not true,” Kitzinger said. “We went over everything and made sure the numbers jibed up, and they did.”
However, Kitzinger has changed her position since the press conference. Citing the number of people who quoted her as an authority on the matter, she expressed reservations about the process, saying it was not as open and transparent as the public was made to believe. According to Kitzinger’s statement on the website of the Waukesha County Democratic Party, she was not made aware of the error until April 7.
“Kathy told us she thought she had saved the Brookfield voter information Tuesday night, but then on Wednesday she said she noticed she had not hit save,” said Kitzinger’s statement. “Kathy didn’t offer an explanation about why she didn’t mention anything prior to Thursday afternoon’s canvass completion, but showed us different tapes where numbers seemed to add up, though I have no idea where the numbers were coming from.”
Part of Nickolaus’ explanation for why she did not catch her error initially was the high turnout level in the race. She said spring elections usually see about 30 percent turnout in Waukesha Co. but even without Brookfield’s votes, turnout was at 42 percent.
“That was an amazing amount of votes so I had no reason to believe I was missing any,” said Nickolaus. “With this change…our turnout vote in Waukesha County was 47 percent, that’s something to be proud of for Waukesha County residents.”
Spring elections usually do not bring people to the polls in large numbers. However, there has been nothing usual about Wisconsin politics this year.
“It was a really unusual environment,” noted Milwaukee County Executive candidate Jeff Stone in his concession speech.
The state has become polarized over Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill and attempts to end collective bargaining for public unions. The result was an energized electorate as over 1.5 million people came to the polls. The Government Accountability Board predicted a turnout of around 20 percent of voting age adults for the election that included just one statewide race. They were off by 14 percent, as historic numbers of people came to the polls on April 5. If the GAB prediction had been correct, roughly 880,000 votes would have been cast.
Even though turnout was high, the difference in the vote totals as of election night was just 204. While the Associated Press did not call the election for either side, Kloppenburg declared victory on April 6.
“Wisconsin voters have spoken and I am grateful for, and humbled by, their confidence and trust,” Kloppenburg said.
After the February primary, Prosser and Kloppenburg were the two candidates left on the ballot for the state’s high court. Prosser received 55 percent of the primary vote and Kloppenburg received 25 percent. There just over 400,000 votes cast, according to the GAB.
While both Prosser and Kloppenburg accepted public financing for the race, outside groups have spent large amounts of money on the race.
According to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, over $3.5 million had been spent by outside groups as of April 5.
The Greater Wisconsin Committee led all spenders with $1.3 million, the group ran adds suggesting “Prosser = Walker.”
The pro-business Issues Mobilization Council of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce was in second, having spent over $910,970.
Other top spenders were the Citizens for a Strong America, Wisconsin Club for Growth, and State Tea Party Express. Citizens for a Strong America ran advertisements asking Kloppenburg to condemn false TV ads by other groups. Wisconsin Club for Growth ran a radio ad discussing Kloppenburg’s “record of suing farmers and other employers.”
While Prosser continues to hold a strong lead now that the Brookfield votes have been included, other counties such as Milwaukee are still in the process of canvassing. As a result, the official results have yet to be fully determined. Even once that happens, a recount is possible, particularly for the Brookfield votes.