By M.D. Kittle and Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — With suspicions growing over voter fraud, incumbent Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard is asking for a recount of votes cast in the 21st Senate District recall election — an election in which Wanggaard’s Democratic challenger, John Lehman, narrowly won.
Or so it appears.
Lehman said he’s confident the results will stand and questioned the motives of the incumbent and his party.
Earlier this week, in its canvassing of the June 5 election, Racine County elections officials found Lehman added 55 votes to his election night tally, apparently giving the Racine Democrat a victory by 834 votes. That’s a slim 1.2 percent win.
At the time, Wanggaard, through a spokesman, said he would consider his options regarding a recount.
Friday, the option considered was recount.
The Racine Republican said over the past week that he has had “dozens of people beating down” his door demanding that he ask for an immediate recount. Many of his supporters, Wanggaard said, feel disenfranchised, a feeling arguably fueled by reports of voting irregularities and allegations of voter fraud at some Racine polling sites.
In a statement, Wanggaard said he does not seek a recount as a delaying tactic.
“Like many of you, I too want to move on from the bitterness that has divided this state as a result of the recall elections,” the lawmaker said.
“But I also recognize that in the absence of a voter ID law, and so many people suspicious of the election result, bitterness and division will only grow if the results are not recounted,” he added.
Still, Lehman expressed confidence, even as he sounded tones of fatigue and suspicion.
“We think it was a fair election, and we will prevail,” said Lehman, who served as senator of the 21st Senate District before he was beaten by Wanggaard in 2010, when Republicans swept into power in the Legislature and governor’s mansion.
The Democrat noted that Walker, who scored a decisive victory over Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the statewide recall election, won the 21st Senate District on the same ballot, on which Wanggaard apparently lost.
“I don’t know what the real objective is, if Mr. Wanggaard is a pawn of some larger political strategy,” he said.
If Lehman’s victory stands, it would be a crucial win for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, giving the party a 17-16 majority in the state Senate.
As it stands, the Senate is evenly split, following the resignation of state Sen. Pam Galloway, R-Wausau, who resigned not long before she was recalled, citing family medical issues.
State Rep. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, easily won the special election for the open seat. If he is sworn in before the recount is cleared up, Republicans would regain the majority.
Lehman said the GOP would then control staffing, committee assignments and the flow of bills.
That worry may prove premature, but recounts, as Wisconsin learned last spring in a heated Supreme Court race, can drag out.
The Government Accountability Board, the state’s election watchdog, Monday is expected to issue an order for recount, which would begin Wednesday. Election officials then would have 10 calendar days to conduct the recount.
“I would expect they would be able to finish late next week. Then there’s a five (business) day period afterwards to appeal to the decision to circuit court,” said GAB staff counsel Mike Haas.
Wanggaard said he seeks only to assure voters about the integrity of the election, guided by what he said is a simple philosophy: “Trust but verify.”
“This is not about maintaining power or denying Democrats power,” Wanggaard said, adding that there are no “secret plans” for a special legislative session while the votes are recounted.
But the recount will cost taxpayers, a point not lost on Wanggaard and fellow Republicans who have decried the heavy expense of the spate of recalls driven by Democrats.
Because of the margin of victory, Wanggaard had to pay $685 for the recount, $5 for each of the 137 wards in the Senate district. Racine County taxpayers also will be on the hook for the recount. County clerk Wendy Christensen estimated the recount would cost $10,000. She said the recount of April’s judicial election cost more than $7,000 with less than half as many votes cast.
“This is what we expected,” said Randolph Brandt, treasurer for the Committee to Recall Van Wanggaard. “We expected a lot of resistance from the candidate and the party. They’re going to use every opportunity to derail it. But in the end there’s not anything they can do.”
“Unfortunately, the last political act of Van Wanggaard is going to cost Racine taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars,” Lehman said.
Republicans may bristle at Lehman’s characterization. According to GAB, the six recall elections last week will cost taxpayers some $16 million, considerably less than a Senate recount.
The close election has been clouded by allegations of voter irregularities.
On election night, a volunteer from the Wanggaard campaign told Wisconsin Reporter he saw a van full of people pull up to a polling place after the cutoff time 8 p.m. and vote.
The MacIver Institute reported election irregularities in the form of pre-certified voter registration forms found in a trash bin behind a polling place in Racine. The Racine County sheriff’s department has confirmed it is investigating the allegation.
MacIver is a Wisconsin-based think tank that promotes free markets, individual freedom, personal responsibility and limited government, according to its website.
“There has not been anything officially reported to my office. I am aware the sheriff’s investigation is doing a couple investigations. No one officially reported anything to me,” Christensen said.
Haas said registration forms are “supposed to be signed by an elector before the clerk.”
“We’d probably want to talk to the clerks involved. We would be especially concerned if there were completed registration forms signed by a voter and ended up in a Dumpster,” the elections official said.
Haas said most allegations of voter fraud are handled by local authorities — the district attorney and the sheriff’s department — because they are criminal charges. He added, “We haven’t received any complaints with specific facts that we could follow up on having to do with alleged voter fraud.”
The Racine County District Attorney declined to comment.
The last recount of a state Senate election happened in 2010, when state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, defeated Republican challenger Ed Thompson by 0.66 percent of the vote. The recount upheld Vinehout’s victory.