Let’s Look at Wisconsin’s Recent History With Recounts

Wisconsin’s last two statewide recounts didn’t affect the outcome of either race and led Republicans to make recounts more difficult

For the third time in less than 10 years, a razor-thin Wisconsin election result appears headed for a recount. And, like the last two recounts, this one isn’t likely to change the outcome, experts agree.

On Wednesday, the state Elections Commission announced that final unofficial results showed that former Vice President Joe Biden had carried Wisconsin by more than 20,000 votes, out of some 3.2 million cast in the presidential race. That would hand the state’s 10 electoral votes to the Democratic challenger, which together with an apparent victory in Michigan raises his Electoral College lead over President Donald Trump to 264-214, six short of a 270-vote majority with 60 electoral votes still to be decided, according to The Associated Press tally

The Republican incumbent’s campaign immediately announced it would seek a recount. Following Trump’s longstanding pattern of casting unsubstantiated doubt on the election process, his campaign alleged without any evidence that the state’s count was tainted by unspecified “irregularities.” A Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman did not respond to a request for further comment.

On Fox News, however, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani falsely claimed that 120,000 Wisconsin ballots mysteriously appeared after 3 a.m. Wednesday as part of a vote-rigging scheme. In reality, the vote count rose in the early morning hours because Milwaukee finished counting more than 165,000 absentee ballots – most of which went to Biden. City officials had announced hours earlier how many ballots they had to count and when they expected to finish.

   

By email, Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said: “When Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by roughly the same amount of votes that Joe Biden just did, or won Michigan with fewer votes than Joe Biden is winning it now, he bragged about a ‘landslide,’ and called recount efforts ‘sad.’ … This is not the behavior of a winning campaign. Plain and simple, Donald Trump has lost Wisconsin, he is losing Michigan, and he is losing the presidency.”

As Bates said, Trump led former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton four years ago, by about 22,000 votes. Clinton didn’t ask for a recount then, but Green Party candidate Jill Stein did. The recount turned up another 844 votes for Trump and another 713 votes for Clinton, increasing Trump’s margin by 131 votes.

The count was even closer and even more controversial in 2011, when then-Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg challenged then-Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. Initial counts showed Kloppenburg ahead by about 200 votes, leading her to declare victory.

But then-Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, a Republican and former Prosser aide from his Assembly days, announced she had forgotten to count more than 14,000 votes from Brookfield, giving Prosser a 7,582-vote edge. Kloppenburg, the liberal favorite for the nonpartisan seat, demanded a recount. When it was done, the conservative Prosser still won by more than 7,000 votes.

However, a Nickolaus-grade error is extremely rare, and Wisconsin’s current voting technology leaves little likelihood that enough votes were miscounted to change the winner, say Mordecai Lee, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll.

What the last two recounts did change was state law. Each time, Republican lawmakers reacted with indignation and tightened the recount rules.

In 2011, Wisconsin law required state and local governments to pay for recounts when the margin of victory was less than one-half of one percentage point. That allowed Kloppenburg to request a recount without having to pay for it. A survey of county clerks by the AP found the counties spent more than $520,000 on the recount.

The GOP-led Legislature then lowered the threshold for a free recount to one-quarter of one percentage point. That forced Stein’s campaign to pay about $3.5 million for the 2016 recount. Because Trump lost the state by more than a quarter of a point, his campaign also would have to pay for a recount, although it’s not clear how much that would cost.

Even though the Greens paid for that recount, Republican lawmakers still complained it shouldn’t have happened, because Stein couldn’t have won. They again changed the law, this time to require that recounts can be requested only by candidates who themselves lose by one percentage point or less. 

Now, says Lee, a former Democratic legislator, “The shoe is on the other foot” for Republicans.

Costs aside, a recount would extend the period of uncertainty about who won the presidential election. In 2000, a recount in Florida delayed the final outcome of the race by five weeks between then-Vice President Al Gore and George W. Bush, then Texas governor. That recount was cut short by a highly controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling that handed the White House to Bush.

In both that recount and the 2016 Wisconsin recount, election officials were under pressure to finish in time to meet federal deadlines to finalize the presidential election and name electors.

Still, Lee says, recounts can improve faith in the voting process by showing how accurately the votes were counted in the first place.

“The good thing about recounts is it helps people sleep better at night,” Lee says. “They never have the feeling of ‘if only.’”

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.