A bit of backstory for those tuning in late to this drama. Several weeks ago, the new Republican Governor Scott Walker and his state legislative majorities, where two brothers are assembly speaker and senate majority leader, said they had to balance the budget by getting concessions from public employee unions, while taking away collective bargaining rights. Democratic state senators (all 14 of them, including a late-term pregnant woman) ran off to Illinois to prevent a quorum, but the measure finally passed without them. The state capital was occupied for days by teachers, firefighters, other state employees, families, friends, assorted others, including many with musical instruments. The crowds eventually left, going home to shift to election mode. Shortly after passage of the Walker bill, a court ruled the state’s open meeting law had been violated and put a stay on the measure. For now, the new law is in limbo, which made the state Supreme Court race so critical.
Against this backdrop, a nonpartisan state Supreme Court race with minimal interest in the February primary turned into a high-stakes sprint to the April 5 finish. The incumbent David Prosser is a former legislator and Republican appointee. The challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg is an attorney in state government, appointed by Democrats. The current court usually rules four to three in favor of conservative/business/Republican causes, and would presumably uphold the Walker bill. Prosser is one of the four; Kloppenburg would likely join the three. In February, Prosser had more than twice as many votes as Kloppenburg. Normally, that would be the end of it. Not after the passion triggered by the capital protests. The contest was hijacked by interest groups, leaving the two candidates, who took public funding and were thereby limited in what they could spend, befuddled bystanders as TV ads lobbed accusations at each of them.
The morning after, the incumbent Prosser was an apparent winner by a margin of about 2,000 votes. Oops, as of mid-day those results were overturned and the challenger was ahead by about 200 votes. Kloppenburg declared victory, claiming the bickering between executive and legislative branches only underscored her message of judicial independence. The governor blamed liberal activists in Madison and Milwaukee for turning out for local elections. Madison elected a progressive mayor (I call him “our Tom Hayden”) and Milwaukee County elected an independent as county executive to the post Walker vacated when he won the gubernatorial race. Confused yet? With so many millions invested by both sides of the labor argument, recount teams were formed to challenge the close court race outcome. But … oops they did it again … and by Thursday morning, Prosser was back up by as much as 7,500 votes. A Republican election clerk in suburban Waukesha County discovered almost 15,000 ballots from a city that had not been reported in final computer tallies due to human error. This week, the Democrat poll watcher in that county, who said she saw no hanky-panky on election night, now says she is 80 years old and doesn’t know anything about computers, so maybe something could be fishy (my word).
Sometime before the end of the week, all counties will confirm tallies, and then by Friday an official winner should be declared. The loser then has three days to ask for a recount. Even though both Prosser and Kloppenburg took public funds and were limited in what they could spend during the campaign, the state’s election officials ruled they could raise and spend unlimited funds for a recount. Go figure.
What gamechangers, do-overs, lessons should catch our attention:
- We don’t have uniform election practices throughout one state, much less the country. Machines, paper ballots, scanners, who knows exactly what we’re using, but our old notion that there is a ballot for every vote, not so.
- We don’t always have well trained poll watchers and Election Day volunteers. Elections are more likely mishandle than stolen, but were hiring supposed experts to perform every other campaign function and we leave the polling place to well-meaning amateurs. Remember the Minnesota Senate race ballots found in someone’s car trunk, left there for safe keeping.
- We don’t know much about how tallies are secured/verified once votes have been cast. Many Wisconsin counties reported discrepancies once the official canvass took place. Not critical unless we’re in a phase of exceptionally close elections that reflect our supposedly polarized electorate.
- We are becoming a quasi-parliamentary system where elections can take place at unpredictable times. Can’t oust the governor this year; turn a court election into a vote of confidence in Walker. Lose the vote on the senate floor, recall a handful of well-selected incumbents.
- Wisconsin has 16 state senate recalls in progress right now, with most expected to qualify with adequate signatures to put the incumbent on the ballot against a challenger in the next few months. There are 18 other states with a form of recall, including Michigan where a bold new governor is facing similar budget-special interest issues.
- Referendums/ballot measures are another chance to undo an election outcome or legislative proposal. Watch Ohio and Florida, two other states with aggressive new governors who want to reset the political system by tackling the deficit by reining in interest groups. Is it easier to convince 50% plus one of the legislature or 50% plus one of the electorate?
- Redistricting is underway all over the country, a powerful weapon for adversaries to carve each other into unfavorable election territory. We’re used to thinking redistricting is a once-every-ten years activity. Do it, done. What if changes in party control of a legislature over the next decade results in redrawing lines whenever power shifts?
- Then we have the courts, the ultimate arbiter of elections, district lines, and policy. As they say, you may not want to go there.