WAUKESHA - Incumbent Justice David Prosser gained a 7,500-vote lead in the hotly contested state Supreme Court race Thursday after the clerk in conservative-leaning Waukesha County announced she undercounted the votes because of an inputting error.
If the new results stand, they would swing the election to Prosser after unofficial results Wednesday showed challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg was the winner with a 204-vote lead out of nearly 1.5 million votes cast.
The new totals showed Prosser with 92,263 votes in Waukesha County, while Kloppenburg had 32,758. County totals previously showed Prosser with 81,255 votes and Kloppenburg with 29,332.
Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus said the votes from the city of Brookfield weren't reported to The Associated Press on Tuesday because of "human error."
"This is not a case of extra votes or extra ballots being found," she said. "This is human error, which I apologize for." She added that human error "is common in this process."
The missing numbers were all from Brookfield, said Nickolaus, who said she discovered the error Wednesday. Apparently, she said, she entered the numbers into the system and failed to hit "save."
Nickolaus said when she came in to upload the information for the statewide canvass, she noticed all of the fields and columns for the city of Brookfield results were blank.
She said the mistake occurred on the "day-to-day system" she uses in her office and had "nothing to do with the election software or system at all."
‘Confidence is high'
Before the announcement, it was assumed the race between Prosser, a 68-year-old conservative justice, and Kloppenburg, a liberal assistant state attorney general, was headed for a recount. But Prosser's lead is likely to stand if the new numbers hold up through canvassing in all of Wisconsin's 72 counties.
Prosser said Thursday night he was "encouraged" by the reports from county canvasses.
"Our confidence is high, and we will continue to monitor with optimism, and believe that the positive results will hold," Prosser said in a statement. "We've always maintained faith in the voters and trust the election officials involved in the canvassing will reaffirm the lead we've taken."
Opponents of the collective bargaining law hoped a Kloppenburg victory would set the stage for the high court to strike it down.
Open records request
Thursday night, Kloppenburg's campaign manager demanded a full explanation of how the error occurred.
Melissa Mulliken said an open records request for all relevant documents will be filed.
The count was corrected on the first day that counties were in the process of verifying unofficial vote totals reported Tuesday. The race was so close, despite 1.5 million votes being cast, that the lead flipped back and forth repeatedly on election day and in the days after as those preliminary totals were checked and updated.
Gov. Scott Walker said before details of the new votes were announced that voters will demand transparency.
"The overriding principle has got to be that every vote that was legally cast in Wisconsin needs to be counted," Walker said.
The discovery of votes that could give Prosser the win and quash any recount before it starts had liberal groups crying foul.
"There is a history of secrecy and partisanship surrounding the Waukesha County clerk and there remain unanswered questions," said Scot Ross, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.
He added, "Her computers need to be seized and a forensic expert needs to go through them as if a crime could have occurred."
And Citizen Action of Wisconsin called for a federal investigation into the situation.
The state Government Accountability Board, which is in charge of overseeing Wisconsin's elections, will review Waukesha County's numbers to verify the totals, said agency director Kevin Kennedy.
"We will conduct our own review of issues because we want to make sure that we are tracking every entry she made into our system," Kennedy said.
Kennedy said it was unfortunate the clerk didn't double-check the data before releasing it to the press.
"Mistakes are never simple, they usually compound themselves, but these are the kind of mistakes we see happen, we just don't see them of this magnitude," Kennedy said.
History of controversy
Nickolaus has come under scrutiny before.
Last year, county officials raised objections to her practice of storing election data off the county's computer network, instead keeping it on computers in her office, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
The practice, which Nickolaus said was aimed at keeping the data more secure, prevented the county's information technology specialists from verifying the system was fail-safe, the county's director of administration said at the time. Auditors later recommended Nickolaus improve security and backup procedures.
In 2001, Nickolaus was granted immunity to testify about her role as a computer analyst for the Assembly Republican Caucus, then under investigation - along with the Senate Republican Caucus and the Democratic caucuses for both houses - for using state resources to secretly run campaigns.
Nickolaus, who worked for seven years as a data analyst and computer specialist for the Assembly Republican caucus, headed up an effort to develop a computer program that averaged the performance of Republicans in statewide races by ward.
During some of that time, Prosser served as Assembly Speaker, meaning he was essentially her boss.
Prosser, who was speaker of the Assembly in 1995 and 1996 and controlled the Republican caucus, was not part of the investigation.
Nickolaus resigned from her state job in 2002 shortly before launching her county clerk campaign.
"This raises so many questions," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.
Barca said he was shocked Nickolaus waited 24 hours to tell people about the error.
A Democratic canvass observer said Nickolaus gave no indication anything was unusual when she arrived at about 9 a.m. Thursday morning, and she didn't find out about the error until the news conference that evening.
"There was no mention of Brookfield," volunteer canvass observer Nora Wilson said.
- State Journal reporter Mary Spicuzza contributed to this report.