A statewide election decided by only 6,000 votes is frustrating for everyone. That close a result indicates no clear will of the people. Random events could easily have determined the outcome of last week’s Supreme Court race. Who got tied up at work and didn’t get to the polls? Who neglected to get a valid witness signature on their early ballot?
And it raises fears of manipulation. As coordinator of Wisconsin Election Integrity, I’ve been receiving inquiries about what I think happened.
First, we would all be well served if Lisa Neubauer quickly raised the cash—around $2 million—to get a statewide recount. If she does that, Neubauer’s supporters could keep hope alive. Brian Hagedorn’s supporters could look forward to removing the cloud over his victory. And because recounts provide officials with opportunity to review practices, find weaknesses and make improvements, every voter would get the benefit of better election administration in the future.
Second, the Supreme Court vote totals are almost certainly incorrect. Statewide results always are. Our elections are administered by a temporary workforce. Even the county clerks don’t work full time on elections. Most workers are only lightly trained and supervised, get no more than four days’ on-the-job experience every year and work under enormous time pressure. Only in recounts do they examine their work to find out how well they did. They would have to be superhuman not to make lots of mistakes.
Most people know that the 2016 recount made little change in the victory margin, but few know the recount found at least 17,681 mistabulated votes, or 0.58 percent of the total. The errors were random—affecting all candidates—and so when corrected, did not change the outcome. But “random” is another word for “unpredictable,” so a recount is a good idea if we care about protecting our right to self-government from errors and glitches. However, in recent years, our Legislature tightened the recount law so extremely that we cannot have one if Neubauer does not raise the cash.
Third, I see no obvious sign of hacked voting machines. When someone manipulates the voting systems to alter the outcome of a statewide race, they will misprogram the software for one or two of the big counties and alter the totals enough to put the race outside the recount margin. But in this race, the unexpected results came from northern Wisconsin, and the statewide result is so close that Neubauer could—if she can raise huge cash quickly—get a recount.
So if this Supreme Court election was miscounted so badly as to identify the wrong winner, the problem would most likely be with miscounted early, absentee and mail-in ballots. The 2016 recount found widespread errors relating to ballot envelopes—mostly officials rejecting ballots they should have accepted and vice versa. But there were other mistakes, too. In Dane County alone, the recount found more than 60 uncounted absentee ballots. Neither rejected nor cast, these ballots were simply overlooked on Election Day and during both the municipal and county canvasses.
Knowing the frequency of absentee-ballot mistakes, I would look there first for any signs of manipulation. A ballot envelope can be rejected on several grounds. Local officials can—must, in fact—exercise subjective judgment (e.g., is this handwriting legible?) when deciding. And while exercising that judgment, they can see the name and address of the voter. That means they can often make reasonable guesses about who will get the votes if they decide to accept the ballot.
To be clear, I’m not alleging any local officials did that in this race or any other, but it’s a fact that they could have if they chose to. A recount would clear that up for both those who suspect and those who deny any wrongdoing. If no recount occurs, we’ll just have to keep guessing.