Wisconsin GOP Hangs onto Senate

Exclusive: Wisconsin Republicans lost two Senate seats in recall elections Tuesday but won four others to keep control of the state Senate and they have a chance to oust two Democrats next week. But the two Democratic victories prove the potential of grassroots organizing, says Lisa Pease.

By Lisa Pease

What happens when one party gives tax cuts to the rich and then uses cries of “economic crisis!” to justify destroying labor unions, protections for the poorer among us, and environmental safeguards?

We just found out, in Wisconsin. Although Democrats failed to reclaim the State Senate, what happened was an extraordinary victory for the party, nonetheless.

Consider: Each of the candidates up for recall on Tuesday were Republicans in districts specifically gerrymandered to support Republicans.

The races came down to the power of money vs. the power of people on the ground. The Republicans funneled large amounts of money into the campaigns, whereas the Democrats answered with larger numbers of bodies “on the ground,” walking door-to-door, asking people to support their agenda.

That any Democrat won was surprising. That two won was a testament to the will of a people who, feeling oppressed, rose up to stop the forward motion of a Republican governor whose agenda is almost comically pro-business and anti-union.

One race, however, revealed some last-minute vote-reporting shenanigans. I’m not questioning the integrity of the outcome. But I have grave doubts about the integrity of the process.

That was the race in District 8 between incumbent Sen. Alberta Darling and her Democratic challenger Rep. Sandy Pasch. Pasch’s victory in the Milwaukee County portion of the district was so large that it looked for a few hours like she might win.

When all the other races had been decided, with most precincts reporting in all other areas of the state, a familiar figure raised suspicions — again — of possible vote tampering.

As the Democrats seemed poised to take all three seats, which would have allowed them to take control of the State Senate and effectively stop Gov. Walker’s legislative juggernaut, a spokesperson for Waukesha County announced that they would not be reporting their results for another hour.

Shortly thereafter, we were told the results would not be known until Wednesday morning. Had that happened in perhaps any other county, the only question would have been, why the delay?

But Waukesha County’s vote-counting effort has been overseen by Kathy Nickolaus for some time, and Nickolaus has a record that should make every voter queasy.

Last year, Nickolaus came under fire for having lost, then found, some 7,000 votes that put her old boss, Justice David Prosser, on the State Supreme Court. (See my initial reporting on this, “Strange Twist in Wisconsin Battle” and my follow-up piece “More Twists and Turns in Wisconsin.”)

As I noted at the time, this wasn’t the first case where Nickolaus had apparently lost and then found votes in her database. In a 2006 primary election, one of the candidates had been declared the winner, but Nickolaus then claimed some votes had been reported in the wrong column.

After the “correction,” the race results flipped to the formerly losing opponent. There had been other “mistakes,” in elections, too.

When one makes a mistake in something as important as an election, it is often waived away as a blip. When someone makes a similar mistake a second time, it looks a little less random. When the same person later claims to need more time to count the votes, can we be blamed for starting to see a pattern?

I had the same thoughts as state Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski, who made the news Tuesday night with his strong accusations about Nickolaus, whom he accused of having “shown gross incompetence, and maybe more in the Supreme Court election.”

(Video link: http://bcove.me/kf8ltyqr)

Zielinski: “We believe that there’s dirty tricks afoot. We believe that there will need to be an investigation, or at least a very good explanation, for what it looks like she’s doing to this election.

“We’ll wait. We’ll see what happens and transpires the rest of the night. We may not have any more statements right now. Of course, our legal team, we are exploring all our legal options right now.

“We are getting as best information as we can, but right now, I can say it is our belief that the election that will determine the control of the Wisconsin senate is being tampered with.”

Reporter: “What hard evidence do you have?”

Zielinski: “That’s all I’m going to say. We’re missing several wards in Waukesha. It looks like she’s sitting on them right now.

Reporter: “What do you mean ‘sitting on them’?”

Zielinski: “She’s not releasing them. We have exit polls. We have information that we believe indicates some performance for us that we believe she is sitting on. It’s much like she did in a Supreme Court race.”

Reporter: “How is that tampering if she’s sitting on them? It’s maybe not good County-Clerking but is it really tampering?”

Zielinski: “We’ll let the results speak for themselves, but right now, we’ll wait to see what happens the rest of the day. Right now, we believe that we were in the lead or near the lead in this race. We believe that Waukesha County is at it again.

“And that’s all I’ll come back. I’m gonna get a little more information for you. I’ll come back one more time before the night is through. You still may hear from Sandy Pasch, but right now, it is our belief that Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus is tampering with this election which will determine the control of the Wisconsin Senate.”

I checked the results Wednesday morning. Even if Waukesha County’s results were eliminated from the total returns, Darling would have won, albeit by a smaller margin.

So whether or not Nickolaus did any vote manipulation is ultimately irrelevant to the conclusion that Darling won, assuming no manipulation happened in other counties (and assuming that even if Pasch had won in Waukesha’s precincts, the margin would have been too small to be relevant).

So it was not surprising that Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate has since retracted Zielinski’s statements.

The problem, as I have repeatedly noted here and elsewhere, is that until we have a truly transparent process for processing and counting votes, accusations of vote tampering will continue to be made when the results don’t match what was expected, based on campaign and exit polling.

The solution is not to stop worrying. The solution is to find a way to open up the voting process so that’s it’s clear everything is being handled in an open and honest manner.

In any case, it appears that the Republican agenda, while still standing in Wisconsin, has received a serious blow.

Losing two seats in Republican districts would have been out of the question before Walker’s radical efforts to strip public employees of their right to collectively bargain, as well as Walker’s efforts to promote huge agribusiness concerns at the expense of local farmers and to reduce environmental protections in the name of promoting business.

Democrats in Wisconsin are demonstrating an important lesson. It’s not enough to be in the right. You have to be willing to get out in the streets, to walk the district, to ask for votes, door-to-door.

If you do it enough, you can win. But it will take an extraordinary effort, and the outcome is not guaranteed.

Lisa Pease is a writer who has studied the recent history of voting irregularities.

3 comments for “Wisconsin GOP Hangs onto Senate

  1. isdivc
    August 13, 2011 at 23:35

    The main stream media’s take on this situation has been unusual, to say the least. They view the Democrats as having “failed” since they fell short of taking back majority control of the Senate. When the entrenched majority Party loses two incumbent Senate seats in districts with deep Republican roots because their Party has riled the opposition so much there have been multiple recalls, how is that a “victory” for the Republicans? By my count, the Republicans had six Senators at stake and lost two. That’s a tactical defeat. This cuts their majority to one (assuming the Democratic recalls fail) and there is at least one Republican Senator who has pretty moderate views and doesn’t disavow compromise with Democrats about substantive issues. Say you were a commander in charge of a fort with 6 walls that is under attack. A messenger comes to you and says two walls have yielded to the enemy. Would you put out a press release saying you won because you still held 4 of the 6 walls? This battle is not over. On Wisconsin!

  2. Warren Kallenbach
    August 11, 2011 at 12:43

    Good work, Lisa! I am pleased to see that you are using your expertise in looking into irregular political campaigns in addition to your other areas of expertise. Warren

    • Lisa Pease
      August 11, 2011 at 21:00

      Thank you, Warren! I appreciate the comment.

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