Voter Confidence? Comparing the Reactions of the GAB, City of Racine and Waukesha County

By James Wigderson

Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

When John Lehman spoke to after Senator Van Wanggaard decided against challenging the results of the recall election in court, even Lehman could not ignore the controversy. “There were irregularities and I don’t see any problem with looking at those irregularities and how these elections could be conducted better.”

Quite probably it was a Pyrrhic victory for Wisconsin Democrats when Lehman defeated Wanggaard in the recall election to give them temporary control of the state senate. Redistricting makes it highly unlikely Democrats will maintain a majority next January, and the legislature is unlikely to convene before then.

But if the approximately 800-vote margin seemed insurmountable to a court challenge, Wanggaard’s request for a recount uncovered several problems with the election. Same-day voter registrants didn’t sign the correct poll book, if they signed the poll book at all. New voters with insufficient identification on election day were allowed to register without challenge, or with a challenge ignored. Ballot bags that were opened and re-sealed with packing tape on election night and no one is taking responsibility for their chain of custody. Poll workers pre-initialing ballots, making them ‘live.” These irregularities and others were in defiance of election procedures and in many cases, state law.

Despite these problems, Kevin Kennedy of the Government Accountability Board (GAB), the state agency that oversees elections, said that attempts to call attention to these issues, “…tend to unnecessarily undermine the confidence that voters have in election officials and the results of the election.”

Kennedy, the GAB executive director, added, “…there is little benefit in promoting unsupported allegations questioning the credibility of the election process and the work of local clerks and election inspectors.”

Rhetoric such as this from Kennedy would seem to indicate that the appointed GAB and its staff consider the best way to protect the confidence of voters in elections is not to run elections properly, but to not question the results.

Of course, the most infamous election night snafu in recent memory occurred in the race between Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg. The misreporting of election numbers by the Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus caused a statewide recount. However, it was ultimately determined that Nickolaus failure that evening was not adding the city of Brookfield’s totals on her spreadsheet. While Brookfield properly reported the results, the county reported the wrong results leading to confusion as to who actually won the election.

Already under pressure, Nickolaus was being watched closely to see how other elections were ran under her watch. Then in the spring elections there was another computer error, reporters were seen totaling up by hand pieces of paper taped to the walls of the clerk’s office. Nickolaus faced pressure from the public and from County Executive Dan Vrakas to step aside during elections. Nickolaus would ultimately decide not to seek re-election. Meanwhile, Waukesha County is taking proactive measures to prevent catastrophes from happening in future elections.

In Waukesha, a public official has been held accountable for the maladministration of the election responsibilities of her office. Nickolaus was very unlikely to win re-election in the August Republican primary if she had run for re-election because of the questions concerning her ability to fulfill her election responsibilities. Vrakas, too, as an elected official was being watched by the public to see how he responded to the problem and he acted accordingly.

Completely misreading the situation in Waukesha, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board cited the Nickolaus situation and said that county clerks should be appointed rather than elected, as if removing accountability to the voters would improve the situation. In an editorial on July 13th, the editors said that fixing Nickolaus’ mismanagement would cost the taxpayers over $250,000 and said, “The Nickolaus Syndrome is dangerous and costly. The state can no longer afford risking its effects. It’s time to appoint county clerks.”

What the editorial does not explain is how having someone unaccountable to the voters in charge of elections would improve the situation, especially when experience would indicate otherwise.

Meanwhile in Racine, where much more egregious violations of the election’s integrity occurred, staff for the appointed GAB is trying to squelch inquiries into alleged violations of the law by attacking those elected officials that are raising real concerns about what happened on the night of the Racine recall election. Kennedy would rather attack those concerned about holding proper elections in Racine rather than risk the public confidence of the elections. Ironically, his statement is only undermining the public’s confidence even further.

Looking at the two situations, the GAB’s conduct in Racine County and the actions by Waukesha County elected officials to fix the election problems there, including the decision by Nickolaus not to seek re-election, if we want elections to be run with integrity we need more democracy, not less.

Elections are not only about policy. They are the opportunity for the public to make a judgment on the competency of the elected officials as well.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorialists think that elections would be run more smoothly if there were less elected officials. That’s not what democracy looks like.