When a little-known liberal challenged a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, the once-sleepy race suddenly looked like a back-door way for Gov. Scott Walker's opponents to sink his agenda.
Unofficial results early Wednesday morning appeared to show challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg beat Justice David Prosser by 204 votes out of 1.5 million cast.
Then the Waukesha County clerk discovered 14,000 unrecorded votes that vaulted Prosser into the lead. Experts said the results represented a draw: Walker didn't lose, but the slim margin means he didn't win big, either.
But the outcome, if it holds up, does improve the odds Walker's collective bargaining law will survive a legal challenge before the high court.
Meanwhile, both sides have girded for a possible recount, with Prosser and Kloppenburg hiring attorneys who are veterans of two of the nation's most hotly contested recounts: the 2000 vote in Florida that elected George W. Bush as president over Al Gore, and the 2008 contest between Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and challenger Al Franken that dragged on for eight months before Franken was declared the winner. That race handed control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats.
Kloppenburg hired Marc Elias, who worked on behalf of Democrat Franken during the Minnesota recount. One of Prosser's attorneys is Ben Ginsberg, who worked for the Republican Bush during the Florida recount. Both are Washington, D.C., lawyers — and fierce rivals, said Jay Weiner, a reporter for the news website MinnPost, who wrote a book comparing the two recounts.
"Elias and Ginsberg are right now the Packers and Bears of recount lawyers," Weiner said.
But Weiner, who studied election recounts over time and across the United States, said Prosser's 7,500-vote lead would be nearly impossible to overcome. Recounts in the modern era of electronic voting machines often result in the change of hundreds — but not thousands — of votes, he said.
"If it all shakes out and ... (Kloppenburg) is still behind by 7,000 votes, it's going to be a tough go," Weiner said.
Officials from the Government Accountability Board went to Waukesha County on Friday to review procedures and confirm the results, while the liberal-leaning One Wisconsin Now and Wisconsin Citizen Action called for criminal investigations into the discrepancy.
Other county clerks across Wisconsin still were verifying their numbers Friday, with final results due by April 15.
It's unknown whether the final numbers will be within 0.5 percent of the total votes cast — the margin that would allow Kloppenburg to ask for a free recount.
Weiner said human error, not fraud, likely is to blame for the shifting numbers. Normally changes in vote totals reported after a canvass go unnoticed because the margin of victory is large enough it doesn't matter, he said.
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GAB's director and chief counsel, Kevin Kennedy, also made it clear Friday he believes fraud is very unlikely.
"Waukesha County is not the only county where the canvass process has caught and corrected errors in the numbers reported on election night," Kennedy said. "Media reports have also noted changes from the unofficial ... results in Milwaukee, Winnebago, Crawford, Shawano, Vernon, Rusk, Iowa, Door, Portage and Grant counties.
"We have confidence in Wisconsin's county and municipal clerks 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."
Ramona Kitzinger, vice chairwoman of the Waukesha County Democratic Party who observed the canvass, said she is satisfied the county's numbers are now correct.
"We went over everything and made sure all the numbers jibed up and they did," she said.
If Prosser's lead holds up, the Supreme Court's conservative majority will remain intact. It's impossible to say for sure whether the bloc would uphold the law, but a Prosser victory would, at the very least, give the measure a better chance before the high court.
"This is a win for the right over the left. Had Kloppenburg won, it would have been a significant victory" for Walker's opponents, said UW-Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic state lawmaker.
"Now the Supreme Court as the sort of last stop for opponents has become a mirage. There's no point in getting there," Lee added.
UW-Green Bay political science professor Michael Kraft said a Prosser win by such a small margin does not necessarily translate into support for the governor. "If I were Walker, I wouldn't be saying everything is just dandy and people love me," Kraft said.
The election didn't deliver a clear endorsement of Walker's policies, but it didn't hurt him, either, said UW-Madison political scientist Ken Mayer. "If Kloppenburg had won, you could have read that as pushback," Mayer said.
But, said Mayer, the mixed results make it hard to "draw any firm inferences about the fate of Scott Walker from this election."
- State Journal reporter Dee J. Hall contributed to this report.