Waukesha County, Wisconsin, has for more than a year been ground zero for the national debate about the mismanagement of elections by partisan officials.
While there is very little evidence of supposed voter fraud in America, there are instances where officials who are in charge of elections mangle the process of counting votes—either intentionally or unintentionally—to such an extent that they raise real concerns about the legitimacy of the process.
And Waukesha County, the third most populated county in the states and the center of a populous Republican-leaning region that is at the heart of the vote-rich suburban tracts surrounding Milwaukee, has become a focus for those concerns.
Now, Waukesha County is back in the headlines after a new vote-counting controversy that has led to calls for the removal of scandal-plagued County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus.
Nickolaus, a former legislative caucus aide who worked closely with Republican Governor Scott Walker and Supreme Court Justice David Prosser when both were members of the state Assembly, drew national attention last year when she was charged with organizing the count of ballots in Prosser’s race for reelection with challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg.
Prosser, Walker’s mentor in the legislature and closest ally on the high court, was threatened with defeat because anger over Walker’s anti-labor initiatives had translated into support for Kloppenburg, an assistant state Attorney General who had worked with Republican and Democratic attorneys general. Kloppenburg’s promise to serve as a jurist who was independent of Walker earned her broad support.
On the morning after the election, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that, with all precincts reporting and all absentee ballots counted, Kloppenburg had won by 204 votes.
One day later, however, Nickolaus announced that she had discovered an error had been discovered in the recording of votes from the Waukesha County of Brookfield. Due to the error, Nickolaus said, Prosser had gained 7,500 votes.
The state Government Accountability Board dispatched voting specialists to Waukesha County to determine what had gone so horribly awry. The Kloppenburg campaign requested that the US Attorney impound the ballots Nickolaus had found, while elected officials, including Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and state Senator Chris Larson, requested a federal investigation.
A lengthy recount, which was plagued by controversy, followed. But the victory was finally declared for Prosser, who in short order took the lead in overriding legal challenges to the way in which Walker’s anti-labor law was enacted. Since then, he had been accused of physically attacking a fellow justice and directing an obscenity-laced diatribe at the court’s chief justice. Last month, the Wisconsin Judicial Ethics Commission recommended that Prosser be disciplined for misconduct in office.
On Tuesday, Kloppenburg was elected without opposition to the state court of appeals.
And what of Kathy Nickolaus.
She’s in the news again.
After Wisconsinites voted Tuesday in presidential primary elections and contests for local posts, other countries across the state reported their returns so quickly that winners were being declared well before 10 pm.
Except in Waukesha County.
Nickolaus, who has frequently been criticized over the years for maintaining convoluted systems for vote counting, was in the middle of another massive screw up.
A new reporting program she had set up—along with a complicated set of procedures that required municipal clerks to deliver voting-machine memory packs and paper tapes with results to her—failed. As a result, according to media reports, "data collectors for election reporting services resorted to tabulating contested races from yards of paper tapes hanging on walls around a meeting room. The process was akin to reading a long grocery receipt where, in some cases, the tape stretched down the wall and onto the floor in a heap."
"Well into Wednesday," long after Republican presidential primary winner Mitt Romney (whose 44–37 victory over Rick Santorum relied on a big boost from Waukesha County), local media reported, "county staffers were entering every vote total for every candidate in every race and every municipality by hand, and then proofed them against the voting machine tapes before posting totals online."
The mess was so severe that, on Thursday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the largest newspaper in the state called for Nickolaus to step down. For so long as Nickolaus remains in office, the newspaper (which backed Walker for governor and has opposed efforts to recall him) asked: "How can the citizens of Waukesha have any confidence that something else won’t go wrong in the next election; something that will call into question the results?"
The Journal Sentinel placed its concerns in the context of the volatile recall election, which will feature May 8 primaries and a June 5 general election for governor, lieutenant governor and four state senate seats.
"Imagine this: It’s 9 p.m. on June 5, recall election day, and the polls have been closed for an hour. Wisconsin has come to the end of a bitter recall campaign that pitted Governor Scott Walker against a Democratic contender, and county clerks across the state are counting votes. Both sides spent a ton of money and spewed vicious ads, and the election rests on a thin slice of undecided voters. It’s expected to be a razor-thin margin, and no one can guess who will win," wrote the Journal Sentinel.
"The tallies start coming in; first Walker is ahead and then his Democratic opponent. The tally swings back and forth, and finally every vote is counted—except for those in Waukesha County. Once again, something has gone wrong with County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus’ system. No one knows what—just that the tally is hours late or vote totals aren’t accurately reported or something else is messed up, and the outcome of one of the most important races in the country this year remains in doubt."
Every election, in every county and every state, needs to be run according to the highest standards of efficiency and integrity. That’s a baseline demand for democracy.
And it is one that everyone should take seriously as Wisconsin prepares for recall elections that will draw national attention—and that will send a powerful signal regarding the ability of the people to hold elected officials to account. The slightest measure of uncertainty about whether that ability is insured poses a fundamental threat not just to the legitimacy of election results but to the legitimacy of the processes by which government itself is constituted.