Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon

Candidates in close races who find themselves contemplating whether to seek a recount of the ballots — and the resolution of related questions about the quality and character of the initial count — need to have some standard for determining when it is reasonable to make the demand. Certainly, if the difference is a handful of votes, no one would argue with seeking a recount. But what about when the margin is larger, such as the 7,316-vote difference between Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg and Justice David Prosser in the hotly contested race for state Supreme Court?

Was it unreasonable for Kloppenburg to seek a recount?

Not if you ask a Republican.

Back in 1960, when the closest presidential race in modern American history was decided for Democrat John Kennedy, the Republican National Committee and state Republican parties sought recounts in 11 states, including Texas. Kennedy’s advantage over Republican Richard Nixon in Texas in the initial count was 46,000 votes. While Democrats objected that Kennedy’s margin was too large to be overturned, Republicans argued that allegations of voting irregularities in a number of Texas counties justified the demand.

Similarly, in the 1976 presidential race, after Democrat Jimmy Carter beat Republican Gerald Ford in Ohio by more than 9,000, Republicans sought a recount of the votes in that state.

And just last year in Minnesota’s gubernatorial race, Democrat Mark Dayton led Republican Tom Emmer by a little less than 9,000 votes. A hand recount of the state’s ballots confirmed Dayton’s winning margin was 8,770 votes. Emmer’s campaign and the state Republican Party continued to wage court fights and challenge ballots until more than a month after the election, when Emmer finally conceded.

In all three cases, Republicans made reasonable requests for recounts, even if those requests failed to overturn the results.

But Wisconsinites know that recounts can alter results.

In 1970, it appeared that Les Aspin had lost a Democratic primary to Doug La Follette in southeastern Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District. But after the official canvass, the margin of victory for La Follette — now Wisconsin’s secretary of state — was less than 0.5 percent of the vote. That enabled the former Pentagon aide to seek a recount paid for by the state. The recount found enough uncounted Aspin votes, most of them in Kenosha, to put him ahead of La Follette.

Barely a month after the primary was finally settled in his favor, Aspin defeated Republican Congressman Henry Schadeberg and began a distinguished career that would eventually see him chair the House Armed Services Committee before his appointment as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense.

In 1982, it appeared that Democrat Russ Feingold had lost his first political race to Republican state Sen. Everett Bidwell. But the vote in the south-central Wisconsin Senate district was close enough to entitle Feingold to a state-sanctioned recount. He pursued it and, after uncounted Feingold votes turned up in rural Sauk County and on a broken voting machine at a school in Dane County, the result was reversed. Feingold was elected to the state Senate and a decade later became a U.S. senator, serving 18 years as the chamber’s most independent and principled member.

Elections are huge endeavors, involving thousands, sometimes millions, of votes that are tabulated by poll workers and clerks who are — like all of us — imperfect human beings.

When dealing with so many variables, mistakes and missteps are to be expected.

Recounts set things right. They identify actual winners, as well as flaws in the voting and counting systems of the state.

Those who object to Kloppenburg’s decision to seek a recount have been unsettlingly transparent — not to mention embarrassingly aggressive — in their determination to shut down the process. They don’t believe that Supreme Court Justice David Prosser’s position will be improved by a thorough review of the ballots and of the methods used to tabulate them.

Prosser and his lieutenants say he has beaten Kloppenburg by an insurmountable margin. But they are not acting as if they are confident about their “win.” Indeed, their bitter attacks on Kloppenburg for daring to demand a recount to which she is statutorily entitled show a sense of desperation that makes the best argument of all for a recount. Amid all the threats and attempts at intimidation, it is reasonable to ask: What are they so afraid of?

Is it, perhaps, an understanding that recounts can change results — just as they can expose flawed or fraudulent counting practices?

After all, Doug La Follette thought he had won in 1970, as did Everett Bidwell in 1982.

Kloppenburg, like Les Aspin and Russ Feingold, is trailing by a margin of less than 0.5 percent. She has qualified for a state-sanctioned review of the voting and vote counting. It is certainly true that Prosser’s lead is a daunting one — more substantial by a wide margin than those seen in the 1970 congressional primary or the 1982 state Senate election — and upsetting it would be a tall order.

But Kloppenburg has the same official right to seek a recount as did Aspin and Feingold. And she has the same right as a candidate to hope — with her supporters — that a broken machine, a transcribed number on a clerk’s computer or another revelation from Waukesha County might yield her needed votes.

Those who attack her for seeking the recount think they are belittling Kloppenburg when they suggest that she is being unreasonable in her faith in the possibilities of democracy. In fact, the critics are exposing their own lack of regard for a time-honored response to close elections: recounting the ballots.

The history of the state, in the examples of Aspin, Feingold and others like them, provides a reminder that recounts can change results. Kloppenburg may not add her name to the list of electoral losers turned winners. But she has more than a right to ask for a review of the ballots and the count. She has a responsibility — as does any candidate who thinks that a victory, or an honest tally, has been obscured — to seek the comprehensive recount she has requested.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com

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