MONROE — After deciding to take no action on 110 missing ballots, a Green County canvassing board on Wednesday certified as final the results of a recount in the Aug. 12 Democratic primary for the 17th Senate District, potentially handing Pat Bomhack the victory.
The recount netted Bomhack 30 votes — including 28 from Monroe, where the ballots went missing. Whether that’s enough to erase challenger Ernie Wittwer’s seven-vote victory on election night depends on the outcome of recounts in Juneau and part of Richland counties.
Wittwer said he was going to meet with his attorney and advisers to determine whether he’ll take legal action against the board. Standing in the historic Green County Courthouse where the board made its decision, Wittwer said ballot problems also plagued other parts of the district.
“This has shattered my confidence in the voting process,” Wittwer said.
The Hill Point Democrat, whose unofficial victory Aug. 12 was a razor-thin 3,847 to 3,840, blamed the problems in Monroe on incompetence among the poll workers. “I don’t think there was any sinister intent,” he said.
Bomhack, of Spring Green, declined to comment until after the results of the entire recount were complete.
The board made its decision after learning Monday that ballots were missing as it prepared to recount the results of the primary.
An investigation by the board looked into three scenarios: A poll worker at the polling place in the basement of Monroe’s city hall may have accidentally commingled unused ballots with marked ballots; someone may have taken the ballots after the polls closed; or the Board of Canvass misplaced them — something Green County County Clerk Michael Doyle, who chairs the canvassing body, quickly dismissed. The investigation found no errors with the voting equipment, Doyle said.
The board interviewed all 17 people who worked at the Monroe polling place, and Monroe Police Chief Fred Kelley said his department is investigating whether a criminal act took place.
“Losing ballots is one thing; somebody stealing the ballots is another. That’s a felony,” Kelley said.
Monroe City Clerk Carol Stamm said she talked to an unidentified man right after the polls closed who asked her if she knew the results of the primary. She added that she didn’t remember if the man identified himself and turned her back to him and didn’t see him leave.
Others at the polling place did not see the man take any ballots, Stamm said. “I can’t ascertain that he took anything, but it’s highly unlikely,” she added.
What most likely happened, Stamm said, is that a poll worker put a stack of marked ballots next to a stack of unused ballots destined for destruction at the courthouse the next day. It’s possible both stacks were put in a box and destroyed.
Prior to sending the unused ballots away, Stamm said she ran her hand over the ones at the top of the box and didn’t see any marked ballots.
“If they were on the bottom, I didn’t dig down far enough to see them,” she added.
The three-person board’s decision wasn’t unanimous. Barbara Woodriff, who represents the Green County Democratic Party, voted against recounting the ballots without accounting for the missing ballots, which she said would disenfranchise 110 voters in Monroe, or 1 in every 8
“This is the last place on earth I thought something like this would occur,” Woodriff said, blaming the mixup on incompetence among poll workers. “This is God’s country. This is where politics is clean and aboveboard. It sucked my breath away that we were missing 110 ballots.”
She asked the board to recount all the ballots in the district other than the city of Monroe.
For that, she said, the board should use the official tally as of Aug. 12, which had Wittwer winning the city by 186 votes. After the recount, without the missing ballots, Wittwer’s lead was reduced to 158.
Doyle dismissed Woodriff’s request and said the board was following the advice of the Government Accountability Board.
He added that the board hand-counted the votes for the county’s four towns and one village but fed the Monroe city votes into a voting machine due to that city’s larger number of votes.
“We have to certify with the ballots that we had at the time of the recount,” Doyle said. “We have an obligation to not guess what happened to those 110 ballots.”
Rolland Karlen, the third member of the board who represents the Republican Party of Green County, voted with Doyle.
Not all the missing ballots included votes in the District 17 primary.
The unofficial results from Aug. 12 counted 860 votes in that race. The recount came up with 808, including 40 fewer votes for Wittwer and 12 fewer for Bomhack.
Districtwide as of late Wednesday, Wittwer was leading by 94 votes with Juneau and parts of Richland counties yet to be recounted.
But if there are no changes to the results in those areas, where Bomhack received more votes than Wittwer, Bomhack would win by 31 votes.
Whoever is declared the winner of the primary will take on Rep. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, in the general election on Nov. 4.