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Congresswoman Seeks Federal Investigation of Wisconsin Election

John Nichols

Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to initiate a federal investigation into the questionable handling of disputed vote records in the state's Waukesha County.

For our democracy to endure, we, the people, must have faith in its laws and system of justice, including faith that our elections for public office are fair and free from any manipulation or tampering,” Baldwin wrote to Holder. “Following this week’s election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, numerous constituents have contacted me expressing serious doubt that this election was a free and fair one. They fear, as I do, that political interests are manipulating the results.”

Baldwin is not exaggerating when she refers to “numerous constituents… expressing serious doubt that this election was a free and fair one.”

The Supreme Court contest between incumbent Justice David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg was seen by many as a proxy referendum on the policies of Governor Scott Walker. That might not have been entirely fair to Prosser or Kloppenburg, but it was a reality that made the officially nonpartisan contest an incredibly intense and at times bitter one.

The turnout reflected the passions that were in play. Close to 1.5 million Wisconsinites went to the polls April 5 in unprecedented turnout for such an election. Kloppenburg, unknown six months ago, given no chance six weeks ago, wrestled Prosser to an electoral tie on election night, when the Associated Press declared the race “too close to call.” The next day, when what were thought to be final totals were tabulated, the challenger was declared the winner by 204 votes. 

A recount was all but certain. 

Then, a day later, Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, a former Republican legislative aide who once worked with Prosser, announced that she had forgotten to tabulate the votes of the very-Republican county’s second-largest city, Brookfield. Those votes gave Prosser a lead of more than 7.300 votes – perhaps enough to avoid the state-authorized recount that can be requested in races where the difference between the candidates is less than 0.5 percent.

The developments in Waukesha were greeted with immense skepticism by Kloppenburg backers, and rightly so. Had the situation been reversed, with a big stack of Kloppenburg votes suddenly turning up in a traditionally Democratic county such as Dane or Milwaukee, there would have been loud and sustained objections.

In such a contested circumstance, it makes total sense to seek the intervention of federal authorities, who frequently step in when there are questions about whether an election was conducted properly.

As Baldwin notes in her letter to Holder, this is not the first time that Nickolaus has been the subject of controversy with regard to her management of elections. “The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that last year (that) Waukesha County officials raised objections to Nickolaus’ practice of storing election data on computers in her office rather than on the county’s computer network,” the congresswoman noted in her letter to the attorney general. “Nickolaus said this practice was aimed at keeping the data more secure. However, this practice 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 that Nickolaus improve security and backup procedures.”

Baldwin’s tone throughout her letter is measured and responsible. She relies on the facts. And the facts point to the conclusion that outside intervention is warranted.

Borrowing from demands made by watchdog groups in Wisconsin, the congresswoman suggests that: “To ensure that the April 5th election for Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice is free, fair, and transparent, and to uphold faith in our democracy for ourselves and future generations, I ask for your immediate assistance in investigating these election inconsistencies in Wisconsin. Specifically, I urge you to immediately assign the Justice Department Public Integrity Section, which oversees the federal prosecution of election crimes, to investigate the questionable handling of vote records in Waukesha County, Wisconsin.”

If Holder makes that assignment, the lawyers from the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section can work with Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board to assure that the ballots from Waukesha – and any other contested counties – are properly preserved and reviewed. They can, as well, examine computers used by Nickolaus and other Waukesha County officials, just as they can review communications between the clerk and outside actors that may have had an interest in the race.

All of this should be a prelude to a full statewide recount that reviews every ballot and all the machinery used to tabulate the votes.

Baldwin has identified the standard that must be upheld in the weeks and months to come. 

“We, the people,” she says, “must be assured that our votes are fairly counted and reported and (that) our democracy remains intact and untainted.” 

Action by the U.S. Justice Department, in combination with the Government Accountability Board and responsible county and local election officials across the state can begin to provide that assurance. As such, Baldwi argues,it is absolutely necessary.

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