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Second statewide recount may decide Tuesday’s recall

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Steven Walters
June 4, 2012

It’s the other “R” word in this historic year of Wisconsin politics: Recount.


If recall election vote totals between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democrat Tom Barrett are within a 0.5 percent margin, a free recount can be requested. The apparent loser can ask for a statewide recount, or recounts only in specific counties.


Most polls give Walker margins-of-error leads over Barrett, whose supporters say their own surveys show the race is tied. With only 2 percent or 3 percent of poll respondents saying they are undecided, a recount is possible.


We’ve seen this recount movie before. Only 13 months ago.


On April 5, 2011, a first set of returns appeared to give challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg a slim victory over incumbent Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. It looked like a stunning upset.


But, after the first statewide recount in modern Wisconsin history, Prosser won a new 10-year term. Out of 1.5 million votes cast, Prosser’s final margin was 7,000 votes.


The Government Accountability Board predicts a vote total of between 2.5 million and 2.8 million Tuesday. In November 2010, Walker beat Barrett by 124,638 votes out of a total of 2.13 million votes both received.


GAB Director Kevin Kennedy said his agency, and local clerks who conduct elections, know that a Walker-Barrett vote recount is possible.


“We’ve dusted off the plan from last time,” Kennedy added. “We probably weren’t thinking about it as much last year as we should have.”


Lessons from Recount 2011:


--First, any Walker-Barrett statewide recount wouldn’t start until the week of June 18, or after local boards of canvassers certify vote totals.


--Second, candidates face no donation limits while a recount is being conducted.


If that phrase “no donation limits” sounds familiar, it should.


There are also no donation limits for state officials while recall petitions against them are circulating. Donation limits are not reinstated until a recall election is officially certified by the GAB.


That allowed Walker to raise a record $25 million—including individual donations of up to $510,000—between the January 2011 date he took office and April of this year. Once the GAB officially certified Walker’s June 5 recall election, the law limiting individual gifts for a statewide candidate to $10,000 was in effect.


--Third, it can take weeks—or longer—for a winner to emerge from a statewide recount. The Kloppenburg-Prosser recount took almost seven weeks to resolve: The vote was April 5, and the GAB declared Prosser the winner May 23.


Kennedy said a Walker-Barrett recount may even take longer than Kloppenburg-Prosser because, “People will be fighting over every last vote.”


A Walker-Barrett recount will amount to a full-employment act for lawyers, Kennedy noted, because both campaigns will want their own laptop-armed witnesses as vote totals, and individual ballots, are revisited.


“That can easily happen,” Kennedy added. “They want to preserve the record for court. … It’s a very public process.”


If a lawsuit is filed while any recount is proceeding, or after the GAB conducts the recount and certifies a winner, it could take months for Wisconsin to know who is governor. That uncertainty would also cast doubt over official acts Walker took in the interim.


--Fourth, vote totals, and any alleged irregularities, in a few counties get the most careful, detailed—and prolonged—scrutiny. Vote-counting problems in Waukesha County last year, for example, delayed the Prosser-Kloppenburg recount results, Kennedy noted. Waukesha County is “less likely” to cause the same problems this year, Kennedy added.


Kennedy predicted that results in Milwaukee, Dane, Waukesha and Racine counties would get the most attention by lawyers for both sides in a Walker-Barrett recount.


--Fifth, state law gives GAB only 13 days to finish a recount, although GAB twice got a judge’s order giving it more time to review about 903,000 names on recall-Walker petitions.


Kennedy said that if 2.8 million votes need to be recounted to decide who is governor, the GAB could again ask its lawyer, the State Department of Justice, to again ask a judge to extend that 13-day deadline.


In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court halted Florida’s recount of presidential votes, which elected President George Bush. The Supreme Court acted Dec. 12, 2000—five weeks after the Nov. 7 election.


Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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