Partisans on both sides were ready to scream “fraud at polls” as the balloting wound down in Wisconsin in the recent state Supreme Court election.
Normally, the race would have been a snoozer. Incumbent Justice David Prosser, a former GOP state assembly speaker and failed congressional candidate, won 55 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting. His opponent, an ultra-liberal named Jo Anne Kloppenburg, ran a distant second. But that was before Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed and won enactment of a series of reforms that change the rules for state government workers in a way that limited their collective bargaining power.
After that, the election was presented as a referendum on Walker’s reforms, one the unions opposed strongly, going so far as to occupy the state capitol building in an effort to block the legislature from doing its business.
Since the court will inevitably rule on the legality of Walker’s reforms, a victory by Kloppenburg would have been a major setback for the new governor since it would have shifted the 4-3 majority on the seven-member Supreme Court from 4-3 conservative to 4-3 liberal. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should public sector workers keep collective bargaining rights?]
The morning after the election, the Associated Press was reporting Kloppenburg ahead by just over 200 votes, enough for her to declare victory, even though the margin was close enough to trigger an automatic recount. The GOP was concerned because the heavy presence of pro-union activists in the state from around the country may have been able to take advantage of weaknesses in the state’s election code to unfairly, perhaps even illegally, influence the election.
The GOP was ready to question the validity of the outcome when a reporting error in heavily-GOP Waukesha County was discovered that gave Prosser a lead of more than 7,000 votes.
Now it was the Democrats' turn to cry, “Foul!” and to raise the specter of vote fraud.
Both parties are right to be concerned. Elections in Wisconsin are a messy business, particularly because the state allows same-day registration on Election Day, and because of something known as “vouching,” in which voters who can prove who they are can attest to the identity of others seeking to vote. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
Something needs to be done. It’s time for a bipartisan effort to look at the entire election. As the Wall Street Journal's John Fund wrote recently, “An independent investigation is called for, if for no other reason than to clear the air and to recommend procedures to ensure such errors don't happen again. Just as many Wisconsin officials have ignored or downplayed evidence of vote fraud (see the Milwaukee Police Department's 2008 detailed investigation) so too have sloppy election procedures been allowed to fester in some counties.”
He’s right. Too many people choose to look the other way when the issue of voter fraud is raised, especially if their party is the one that benefits. Elections are too important to not take these allegations seriously. Wisconsin has the reputation for being a “good government state.” If they want to keep it, Governor Walker should appoint an independent panel to review the election and use it as the basis for a set of electoral reforms that could be a model for the nation.