Newly appointed Dane County Clerk Karen Peters initially had doubts that the county could finish hand counting some 182,000 Supreme Court ballots within a 13-day deadline. But on Thursday she expressed confidence that it could be done.
But that was before the glitch.
On Thursday afternoon official "tabulators" were busily counting ballots from the city of Verona when the votes came up more than 90 short of what the electronic readout from the voting machines said they should. That sent Verona officials on a hunt, and a rubber-banded stack of 97 ballots turned up in the office of Verona City Clerk Judy Masarik.
"There's a table in the clerk's office, and there was a binder and some other papers on top of the ballots," said City Administrator Bill Burns, who found the stack.
The statewide recount, requested by challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg after her narrow loss to incumbent David Prosser, has the potential to change the outcome, so the Verona situation caused much consternation. On election night, all the ballots were supposed to be secured in sealed bags, which were then supposed to be signed by local elections officials. The seals were supposed to remain intact.
Burns found the bundle unbagged. They were bagged and he drove them to Madison. The bag had no signatures or initials.
In minutes, Masarik, Burns and three Verona elections officers were sworn in, and a makeshift court hearing was under way, during which representatives from the Prosser and Kloppenburg campaigns tried to get to the bottom of how the ballots were separated from the other 3,500 or so Verona ballots, which were properly bagged and stored in Masarik's office.
"I just have to ask," Peters asked Masarik: "Just why were these not sealed in a bag on election night?"
But no one could say now it happened.
Through precinct stamps and initials on the ballots, the proceeding pretty much established that the ballots were genuine.
But the chain of custody was compromised. Not only did Masarik admit that her office was sometimes left unlocked while she was at lunch, a cleaning person had access to the office after hours.
While the incident didn't change the numbers as originally reported, the ballots in question favor Prosser by 30 votes: unexpected because he took a 2-1 beating in the city overall.
Small potatoes, right?
But this situation and any similar ones that might be played out in Wisconsin's other 71 counties that are recounting ballots could be a factor if the recount narrows Prosser's already thin margin of victory: a 7,316-vote advantage in a race in which 1.5 million votes were cast. Every vote will be important, and the Verona ballots will surely be challenged if the Kloppenburg camp thinks they could make a difference in the outcome.
After the city of Verona was counted, tabulators continued their tedious job, which entails separating Kloppenburg votes from Prosser votes, hand-counting them, then counting them again. But the missing ballots took about two hours out of a 12-hour day.
Peters has set a goal of counting 15,000 ballots every day, which she said she needs to do to meet the May 9 deadline.