JoAnne Kloppenburg faced a great deal of pressure to let it all pass—to accept an initial canvas of ballots that said she lost the intensely contested Wisconsin Supreme Court race by less than one-half of one percent of 1.5 million votes, to forget about election irregularities in a number of Wisconsin counties, to neglect the fact that the Waukesha County Clerk (a former employee of her opponent and longtime ally of authoritarian Governor Scott Walker) found the decisive votes in the contest almost two days after the other seventy-one Wisconsin Counties had reported their results.
Despite the fact that this was the closest high court contest Wisconsin has seen in modern times, despite the irregularities and open questions raised by an initial count that everyone admits was problematic, Kloppenburg was told by her opponent, Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, that seeking a recount of the votes and a full examination of the irregularities would be “frivolous.” Right-wing talk radio declared that seeking a recount—which must be paid for by the state in so close an election—would “waste” taxpayer dollars. Even some of Kloppenburg’s allies warned that it was highly unlikely that a recount would overturn Prosser’s 7,316-vote lead, as such reversals are rare—if not unheard of—in American politics. And they warned that, against a well-funded incumbent who had hired top lawyers—including Ben Ginsberg, who represented George Bush in the 2000 Bush-v.-Gore Florida recount fight—Kloppenburg’s grassroots campaign would be required to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps milions, to wage the legal battles associated with so high stakes a recount.
But Kloppenburg’s candidacy has always been a leap of faith.
A first-time candidate who was a complete political unknown when she filed her candidacy petitions several months ago, the assistant attorney general of Wisconsin had legal skills but little in the way of political exopertise. In the primary election, held in February, she trailed the incumbent by thirty points. No one gave her a chance. Then Prosser’s longtime political ally, Governor Scott Walker, launched a move to strip state, county and municipal employees and teachers of union rights—as part of a broader push to restructure the politiics and government of the state in a manner that would consolidate power in the governor’s office and undermine local democracy.
The uprising against Walker’s agenda —which saw hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites rally in Madison and communities across the state to protest—boosted Kloppenburg’s unlikely candidacy into contention. On the day after the election, unofficial final returns put the challenge ahead by 204 votes.
Then Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus announced that almost 14,000 untabulated votes had been found in the second-largest city in the county, Brookfield, and that those votes broke dramatically in Prosser’s direction. Nickolaus, who used to work with Prosser and Walker when Prosser was the state’s Assembly speaker and Walker was one of his lieutenants in the Republican legislative caucus, had a history of mangling election results. But this announcement raised an outcry among Kloppenburg backers and continues to be the subject of calls for investigations by state and federal officials.