Wisconsin's top elections agency said Friday it would review a county clerk's discovery of 14,000 votes in the state's photo-finish Supreme Court election, a total that appeared to both decisively tip the race to the conservative incumbent but also continue the partisan battles that have dominated the state for months.
National groups had poured money into the normally obscure contest, viewing it as a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to strip public workers of their ability to collectively bargain. The challenger, Asst. Atty. Gen. JoAnne Kloppenburg, declared victory Wednesday after the unofficial tally showed her with a 204-vote lead.
Then Kathy Nickolaus, the clerk of conservative Waukesha County, said in a news conference Thursday that she had forgotten to include the county's second-largest city's votes in the initial tally. The incumbent, Justice David Prosser, received a net gain of 7,582 votes.
Nickolaus' account was confirmed at the news conference by a Democrat who sat on the county canvassing board that discovered the error. But other Democrats and unions who backed Kloppenburg swiftly called for an investigation.
The critics noted that Nickolaus had worked for Prosser when he was the Republican legislative leader in the Assembly and she was a staffer with the Republican caucus. She left after being granted immunity in a criminal investigation that found staffers in both parties' caucuses were illegally performing campaign work. An audit last year criticized her for keeping election information on a private computer in her office that could not be examined by county staff, leading to a severe chiding from county supervisors.
"If there was anyone in the state of Wisconsin who has the expertise, over two decades, to manipulate programs and results, it'd be her," said Scot Ross of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, which called for a probe by "trained law-enforcement investigators."
The investigation will be conducted by staff and attorneys at the Government Accountability Board, the nonpartisan agency that tallies election results from Wisconsin's 72 county clerks.
The board's director, Kevin J. Kennedy, said in a statement Friday that the agency would check the original returns from polling places in Waukesha County and review Nickolaus' "business practices."
The board will wait to certify the election results until the review is complete. "We have confidence in Wisconsin's county and municipal clerks," Kennedy added, "and do not believe any of them would do anything illegal to jeopardize their own reputation, or Wisconsin's reputation for clean, fair and transparent elections."
Nickolaus, an elected official who did not return a call Friday, said Thursday that the mistake was "human error, which I apologize for, which is common in this process."
At her news conference Thursday, Nickolaus said she had received a file of the vote totals from the Brookfield city clerk and forgotten to save it into the database she turned over to the Associated Press, which provided the unofficial tally of each county's vote on election night. She said she discovered the mistake as the canvass began Wednesday morning but could not announce it until the totals were verified Thursday.
Prosser's campaign manager, Brian Nemoir, on Friday said he welcomed the review by the accountability board. "A fully transparent process makes sense and aids in the cause," he said.
The Kloppenburg campaign filed a public records request Friday, seeking information on how Nickolaus tallied her numbers and discovered the omission of the city of Brookfield, which has a population of about 40,000.
Campaign manager Melissa Mulliken defended the campaign's decision to declare victory with a slim, unofficial lead Wednesday. "We did what candidates do when the votes have been tallied on election night and you have won."
The election drew more than $3.5 million in outside spending from conservative and liberal groups and led to a record turnout for a state Supreme Court race. Democrats and unions threw their weight behind the little-known Kloppenburg, hoping to shift the 4-3 majority on the state's high court before Walker's union law comes before that body.
The GOP-controlled Legislature passed the measure last month, after huge protests and the flight of all the state Senate Democrats to Illinois to try to deny Republicans a quorum. A judge ruled that the Legislature apparently violated Wisconsin's public meetings law in passing the bill, and placed it on hold. The Walker administration has appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court.