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No big problems reported in clerks offices under fire

By   /   August 15, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle/Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – Looking to avoid the kind of controversy generated in the 21st Senate District recall election, Racine’s city clerk reportedly has brought in more poll workers and amped up training.

“Our understanding is that things are going smoothly so far in Racine today,” said Reid Magney of the Government Accountability Board, the state’s elections watchdog. “The city has made a strong effort to recruit enough poll workers and provide them the required training.”

Racine clerk Janice Johnson-Martin could not be reached for comment and her deputy did not immediately return calls from Wisconsin Reporter.

The clerk’s office was at the center of a firestorm of criticism over a string of voting irregularities in the June recall race. Racine Democrat John Lehman appeared to beat incumbent Republican Sen. Van Wangaard, also of Racine, by more than 800 votes.

Wangaard challenged the results.

A recount found Lehman the winner, with elections officials throwing out just a handful of disputed votes.

The audit, however, did find:

  • Missing pages in poll books,
  • Missing signatures on supplemental poll lists,
  • Incorrect voting numbers,
  • Unsealed and sealed and reopened ballot bags in wards in Racine.

While poll workers apparently did not follow that law in some cases, the GAB in June told Wisconsin Reporter that the votes would stand — that throwing out the ballots would only disenfranchise voters.

Magney said there is no provision in state election law to punish poll workers for “administrative errors.”

Wisconsin’s new voter ID law — sans the legally contested identification provision — requires voters to sign ballot books and supplemental poll lists when they vote.

“Voters shouldn’t be penalized for errors,” Magney told Wisconsin Reporter during the recount, adding that the issue appeared to be an oversight, with no malicious intent.

Waukesha County questions

In Waukesha County, perhaps the epicenter of election foibles in the Badger State, it was unclear whether embattled County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus was in charge of overseeing the vote count in Tuesday’s primary.

County Executive Dan Vrakas had asked Nickolaus to stand down and let her deputy lead oversight of ballot counting in the June 5 recall election. He threatened to publicly demand the clerk’s resignation if she didn’t.

The move was meant to be a remedy to critical errors Nickolaus made in two big statewide elections that undercut the county’s credibility and put the clerk’s office under the hot lamp of public criticism.

She was scolded but not punished following an investigation into her failure to include 14,000 votes from Brookfield until two days after a hotly contested state Supreme Court race in 2011. Taxpayers were forced to pay for a state-wide recount that confirmed the added votes changed the outcome of the election, giving the win to incumbent Justice David Prosser.

In the April 3 presidential primary election, Nickolaus posted election results online hours late.

Wisconsin Reporter attempted to ask Vrakas what role the clerk would play in officiating Tuesday’s partisan primary elections, but Vrakas did not return a call. An assistant in his office at first said he was available, but then said the executive had just stepped into a meeting. She assured that he would answer the question within the hour. He did not, and the office closed at 4:30 p.m. without a return call.

Nickolaus was handling calls, apparently at the clerk’s office, Tuesday evening as the votes came in. She told Wisconsin Reporter that a voting machine was broken in Elm Grove but that the problem was quickly fixed, limiting any delay.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel looked into allegations in June that Nickolaus still was leading election operations during the June gubernatorial recall election. She was observed passing out election supplies to local clerks, and reportedly took questions from the field.

“Our understanding is that she and the county executive reached an agreement about her involvement in elections. You’ll have to ask them whether that agreement is still in place,” said Reid Magney, spokesman for the state Government Accountability Board, responding to Wisconsin Reporter’s question about Nickolaus’ status.

Election results in Waukesha Tuesday appeared to be reported in a timely fashion.

Nickolaus isn’t long for the clerk’s office.

She opted not to seek another term, and her would-be successors competed in a primary to replace her Tuesday.

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