John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.
JoAnne Kloppenburg faced a great deal of pressure to let it all pass — to accept an initial canvas of ballots that said she lost the intensely-contested Wisconsin Supreme Court race by less than one-half of one percent of 1.5 million votes, to forget about election irregularities in a number of Wisconsin counties, to neglect the fact that the Waukesha County Clerk (a former employee of her opponent and longtime ally of authoritarian Governor Scott Walker) found the decisive votes in the contest almost two days after the other 71 Wisconsin Counties had reported their results.
Despite the fact that this was the closest high court contest Wisconsin has seen in modern times, despite the irregularities and open questions raised by an initial count that everyone admits was problematic, Kloppenburg was told by her opponent, Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, that seeking a recount of the votes and a full examination of the irregularities would be "frivolous." Right-wing talk radio declared that seeking a recount — which must be paid for by the state in so close an election — would "waste" taxpayer dollars. Even some of Kloppenburg's allies warned that it was highly unlikely that a recount would overturn Prosser's 7,316-vote lead, as such reversals are rare — if not unheard of — in American politics. And they warned that, against a well-funded incumbent who had hired top lawyers — including Ben Ginsberg, who represented George Bush in the 2000 Bush-v-Gore Florida recount fight — Kloppenburg's grassroots campaign would be required to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions, to wage the legal battles associated with so high stakes a recount.
But Kloppenburg's candidacy has always been a leap of faith.
A first-time candidate who was a complete political unknown when she filed her candidacy petitions several months ago, the assistant Attorney General of Wisconsin had legal skills but little in the way of political expertise. In the primary election, held in February, she trailed the incumbent by 30 points. No one gave her a chance. Then Prosser's longtime political ally, Governor Scott Walker, launch a move to strip state, county and municipal employees and teachers of union rights — as part of a broader push to restructure the politics and government of the state in a manner that would consolidate power in the governor's office and undermine local democracy.
The uprising against Walker's agenda — which saw hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites rally in Madison and communities across the state to protest — boosted Kloppenburg's unlikely candidacy into contention. On the day after the election, unofficial final returns but the challenge ahead by 204 votes.
Then Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus announced that almost 14,000 untabulated votes had been found in the second largest city in the county, Brookfield, and that those votes broke dramatically in Prosser's direction. Nickolaus, who used to work with Prosser and Walker when Prosser was the state's Assembly Speaker and Walker was one of his lieutenants in the Republican legislative caucus, had a history of mangling election results. But this announcement raised an outcry among Kloppenburg backers and continues to be the subject of calls for investigations by state and federal officials.
Kloppenburg agrees. She is calling on the state's Government Accountability Board to appoint a special investigator to "professionally, thoroughly and completely investigate the actions and words of the Waukesha County clerk."
But she is not stopping there.
Kloppenburg announced Wednesday, one hour before the deadline, that she would seek a full recount of the state's ballots with an eye toward addressing all election irregularities.
"I've asked for a recount to determine what the right count is, and also to preserve confidence in the electoral process," she told reporters at a dramatic press conference at Madison's Warner Park Community Center, where she was surrounded by cheering supporters. "It is right for me, it is right for my campaign, it is right for my supporters, and it is right for the people of Wisconsin."
Kloppenburg was well aware of the attacks and threats she was facing. "They've called it a drama and a circus, but actually it's called American Democracy," she said, noting that, "With a margin this small — less than one half of one percent — the importance of every vote is magnified and doubts about each vote are magnified as well."
That will not make the weeks to come easier.
The recount process will play out in all 72 Wisconsin counties. It will be arduous and expensive — especially with the Prosser campaign promising to erect every possible legal roadblock. But Kloppenburg, who really did wrestle with all the questions associated with the process, made her call confidently.
Indeed, she positioned herself precisely where anyone seeking a recount should — not as a candidate clawing for votes but as a defender of democratic practices and procedures.
"Wisconsin residents must have full confidence that these election results are legitimate and that this election was fair," Kloppenburg explained.
Let her critics rant and rave. Kloppenburg has done the right thing. Refusing to be intimidated, she has taken a stand on behalf of the full, fair and accurate accounting of the results of a close and critical election. This is not just what democracy looks like. This is what democracy demands.