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Recount clock ticking in disputed Wisconsin court race

Protestors gather for a rally outside the Capitol building to speak against a proposed bill by Republican Governor Scott Walker in Madison, Wisconsin February 21, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

Officials in Wisconsin’s largest county said on Thursday they would meet the deadline for finishing their review of the local vote in last week’s state Supreme Court race, an election widely seen as a referendum on Republican efforts to curb public sector unions.

The end of the county reviews would set the stage for either candidate in the closely watched contest to demand a recount.

Although Milwaukee’s County’s review remains incomplete, its unofficial count, when combined with the final counts from other counties, show the incumbent, former Republican state assemblyman David Prosser, with a lead of about 7,300 votes over the challenger, an assistant state attorney specializing in environmental issues named JoAnne Kloppenburg.

Races for the high court are normally low-profile affairs. But this year, the contest took on added significance because it was the first statewide race since the Republican-controlled legislature approved a proposal by Governor Scott Walker to restrict public workers union rights.

Several legal challenges to the law are also making their way toward the state’s top court — though a judge threw out one of them on Thursday.

The high court currently has a 4-3 conservative majority. If Kloppenburg had upset Prosser — an event that seemed possible a week ago but now seems improbable — it would have flipped the court and given opponents of the anti-union measure hope the law would be overturned.

Milwaukee is the last of the state’s 72 counties to wrap up its canvass and submit the results to the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections.

Under state law, all canvasses — a routine part of the post-election process designed to uncover discrepancies before the vote is finalized — must be completed by Friday at 5 p.m.

Late Thursday, Milwaukee Election Commissioner Lisa Catlin Weiner said the process was taking longer than expected but that it would be finished by deadline.

Once the GAB posts Milwaukee’s totals, the candidates have three business days to request a recount. Assuming Milwaukee files on time, that means a deadline of 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Immediately following the April 5 vote, when Prosser and Kloppenburg appeared separated by just a few hundred votes, a recount seemed inevitable. Now, it’s less clear.

The discovery late last week of thousands of misplaced votes in Republican-leaning Waukesha County gave Prosser a commanding lead.

In Wisconsin, recounts are not automatic. They are also only free to the candidate requesting them if the candidates are separated by fewer than 0.5 percent of the total votes cast.

Prosser’s current lead seems to be beyond that threshold. So Kloppenburg would have to pay for a portion of the recount — at least $5 award.

Kloppenburg’s campaign director, Melissa Mulliken, refuses to say whether they are preparing to request and finance a statewide recount. But experts think it’s unlikely.

“I’m guessing that they’re not going to demand a recount,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who served as a Democrat state legislator in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Once all the results are certified it’s going to be clear that the gap is so large that it’s unlikely a recount will flip the election.”

Separately on Thursday, the judge who has temporarily blocked the implementation of the collective bargaining curbs threw out one of the three lawsuits challenging the measure.

The suit, which claimed the law’s passage violated the state’s constitution, was filed by politicians in Dane County, where the state Capitol is located.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi said the county officials lacked standing to assert constitutional claims. She said they could refile as private citizens.

Sumi is also hearing a separate lawsuit against the law filed by the Dane County district attorney.

That suit says the Republicans who passed the anti-union measure violated the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Last month, Sumi issued a restraining order preventing the union curbs from taking effect while she hears arguments in that case, a process expected to continue through May.

Copyright © 2011 Reuters


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