The biggest news of the week for the Coulee Region was the recount for Senate District 32 between Dan Kapanke and Jennifer Shilling. As an official observer for the Kapanke campaign, I spent the week looking over the shoulders of poll workers and clerk staff to observe that all laws and procedures were followed. What I witnessed was a memorable lesson in how our elections work and the people we rely on every election to get it right.
I want to thank and commend the tabulators who were doing all the work at the table that I observed this week. Liz, Leah, Bill, Ardelle, Paula, Pat, Sue, and Nancy were professional and courteous and very keen on making sure that every vote counted. These are just a few of the remarkable people that work behind the scenes every election so that the process runs smoothly. God bless you all for your efforts!
The process started on day one with a brief lecture by the County Clerk about the rules for observers. We were told that we could not sit at the tables where the tabulators were counting ballots, we could not distract the tabulators with conversation, we could not touch any of the ballots or other election related documents, and we had to leave any water bottles or beverages at the back of the room in the designated ‘observers area’ that was set aside for us when we were not actively observing. We were ordered to wear name tags: red borders for the Kapanke team and blue borders to identify the Shilling team so the County Clerk staff could identify which side we represented.
While these rules made perfect sense to help ensure a smooth process with few distractions, it was the selective enforcement of the rules that bothered me at times. For instance, within 30-seconds of walking into the room with my water bottle I was sternly told to put it in the back of the room. Later, I witnessed a Shilling supporter wander around with a bottle of orange juice, place it on the ballot counting table, and was quietly informed of the rule about 30-minutes later. In another example of selective enforcement, I witnessed another Shilling supporter pull up a chair to the counting table right next to a pile of ballots, finger through some of the paperwork, and chatter away with the tabulators. This went on for about 45-minutes before he was reminded of the rules. My take away from this: like so many other aspects of political life in America, Republicans are required to follow every rule to the letter while Democrats are allowed to pretty much do whatever they want because the liberal, Democrat-leaning government representatives hold us to different standards.
With regard to the actual ballot counting, it was very interesting to watch the tabulating teams ramp up and find a rhythm in their workload. For nearly all of them this was their first recount so they relied on the experience of their colleagues to share best practices. Little things like placing a stack of ballots in front of them and then sorting those into separate piles according to candidate helped them organize the workload and eventually get into a kind of rhythm. My job was simply to observe and ask them to set materials aside for further review if I noticed anything odd. The tabulators were very good at catching the oddities themselves and setting things aside before I had to say anything but there were a couple of times when I had to insist.
My first observation was for the election results in the Town of Burns. My first action as observer was to request clarification about what constitutes a legal address for an absentee witness. That information is required on the absentee envelope and if it is not completed properly the ballot can be rejected. I learned that it MUST contain the witness signature, address, and municipality.
There were 30 absentee envelopes and 30 absentee ballots though it took a little time to reconcile one of them which turned out to be folded differently than the other absentee ballots. The results of the hand recount were:
Kapanke – 316
Shilling – 191
DeNure – 12
My second observation was for Bangor. There were 50 absentee envelopes but 51 ballots. It took a few minutes but the team found that there was a military ballot that was emailed so no envelope was used but all the appropriate paperwork was there so it counted. There was also one over vote in this batch where both Shilling and DeNure were marked so that ballot did NOT count since there was no way of knowing the true intent of the voter. Most importantly in this batch was a lightly marked ballot for Kapanke that the machine did not register. Since the ballot was clearly marked for Kapanke it was added to the total giving him one extra vote that the machine count missed.
Kapanke – 387
Shilling – 331
DeNure – 19
Over vote – 1
Under vote – 8
My third observation was for Hamilton. There was quite a bit of discussion with this batch. The poll records were not done very well and there was some confusion about which absentee ballots actually got counted on election day. After spending a bit of time on such a small municipality the team was able to reconcile the counts properly. There were 324 absentee envelopes and the ballots were 322 + 2 military so the numbers matched. There was also a record of 10 voters who requested ballots but did not return them in time for the election so those were NOT counted.
Kapanke – 862
Shilling – 546
DeNure – 19
My fourth observation of the day was for City of La Crosse Ward 18. This batch caused some headaches because there were 114 absentee envelopes and only 112 absentee ballots. After some discussion and analysis, it was determined that there were re-made ballots that were counted with the regular ballots but should have been considered absentee.
Kapanke – 153
Shilling – 257
DeNure – 20
My final observation for day one was for City of La Crosse Ward 19. This one definitely caused some grief when the tabulators could not locate 3 Shilling votes. After several recounting efforts to make sure no math errors occurred the conclusion was that the ballots must have been included with Ward 21 which shares the same polling location. There was also 1 provisional ballot in this batch but it was NOT counted since the voter failed to return with the appropriate documentation to prove his residency.
Kapanke – 152
Shilling – 272
DeNure – 14
SD32 Recount Day Two
The second day of the Senate District 32 recount was much like the first day: a lot of counting.
I began by observing the team recounting the West Salem votes. There were some mechanical issues with the machines there on election day so I paid close attention for any errors that might arise. I asked for two ballots to be set aside for legal counsel to review. One had no signature where the clerk usually signs and the second showed markings in both Kapanke and Shilling with a sine wave marking through the Kapanke selection. The legal counsel decided that these were legal votes for Shilling.
Kapanke – 1410
Shilling – 1227
DeNure – 59
My next observation was for La Crosse Ward 15. This had 4 provisional ballots that were set aside on election day but only 2 counted. Two did not return to provide the necessary credentials to prove they were legal residents. There was also some discussion among the team about reconciling the absentee ballot count. It turns out there were some military votes that were mistakenly counted with the regular ballots so it was just a counting mistake.
Kapanke – 174
Shilling – 315
DeNure – 18
My final observation of the day was for Onalaska Wards 9-12 (District 3). This one took about 5-hours to get right and had several interesting anomalies.
There were several lightly marked ballots that may not have been read by the machine. The ballot counts were incorrect and had to be tabulated multiple times before they reconciled. The absentee envelopes had to be counted multiple times and validated one-by-one before they reconciled. There were over votes, under votes, weird write-ins, and 3 absentee envelopes that were challenged.
After five hours of mind numbing counting and re-counting the legal counsel argued over the 3 absentee envelopes with the County Clerk. The final conclusion was that 1 was definitely bad and would require a 'draw down' that the Shilling legal counsel objected to. During the draw down, 1 ballot was chosen randomly from the stack of absentee ballots and removed from the official count: it was a Shilling vote.
Kapanke – 1921
Shilling – 1612
DeNure – 53
SD32 Recount Day Three
I only observed for a few hours in the morning of day three for the Senate District 32 recount. This time it was the Town of Holland.
The team I observed was tasked with reconciling the absentee envelopes and the poll records while another table of tabulators was handling the ballots. There were a couple of oddities including a plain business envelope which did not appear to have a valid witness certificate. After working through the pile the election team did find the certificate which must have dislodged somehow.
In addition, there were 2 that had been rejected for containing no signature and one rejected because it was received late (two days after the election). There was also one envelope that did not have the appropriate witness address information included. The Kapanke legal counsel objected but the clerk ruled that it be counted.
Kapanke – 1359
Shilling – 953
DeNure – 49
Final Day of Observing
On the final day I was able to observe we began with Holmen. This was an important one that Kapanke won by only around 100 votes. There were several anomalies in this batch that the tabulators had to reconcile. At least 2 absentee envelopes were not dated properly and 1 had no witness signature at all and there was also 1 absentee envelope that was not recorded in the poll record. All of these were set aside right away for further review by legal counsel. During one of the sorting exercises that they were doing to alphabetize the envelopes, I noticed an envelope that did not contain a complete witness address and I asked for it to be set aside. It’s a good thing I did because the tabulators missed it previously.
There was quite a lengthy discussion among the legal counsel and the County Clerk about what to do about a voter who was recorded in the poll book but was not listed in the absentee voter record. The Shilling legal counsel felt that this was simply a clerical, record keeping error and that the ballot should be counted since the voter appeared in the poll book. The Kapanke lawyer argued that it should NOT be counted since it was only an assumption that the mistake was simply clerical and there was no proof that it was legally cast due to the breakdown in procedure. The County Clerk assembled her Board of Canvassers and they discussed the arguments and then sided with the Shilling lawyer ruling that the vote should be counted.
Once the counting was completed, the envelope I identified with a bad witness address was reviewed by the clerk and legal counsel and all parties agreed that a draw down was necessary because of this mistake. A group of 100 ballots was randomly selected from the Kapanke and Shilling piles and then set aside for the draw down. The idea here is to eliminate one ballot randomly in order to accommodate for the improperly cast ballot. If a Kapanke ballot were drawn, then I would feel terrible for taking the risk and losing a vote for my candidate. However, a Shilling vote was drawn so I felt like I had just won the lottery! Minus one vote for Shilling!
Unfortunately, there was also an over vote that was reviewed by the legal counsel and all parties agreed that it was a legally cast ballot for Shilling so it resulted in a net wash:
Kapanke – 2359
Shilling – 2238
DeNure – 97
The Board of Canvassers is made up of representatives of various government entities who are responsible for the elections. In my opinion they are NOT impartial. They have a vested interest in protecting their reputation and when questions about election integrity come up they are biased toward overlooking the legal mistakes made by their colleagues. For instance, instead of following the letter of the law with regard to the incomplete poll record, they agreed to treat it as a clerical error instead of taking the personal black eye that their poll workers screwed up. In a close election this could easily sway the result to the person who may not have won legally.
Another conclusion I have made about our election system after witnessing this recount process is that we still have a long way to go to ensure that our elections are fair and accurate. Throughout this entire week of recounting the ballots I kept analyzing the steps to see if there was any way to detect voter fraud. While the voter ID law has made it more difficult for groups of voters to cheat by simply impersonating another person and voting in their place it has not eliminated all forms of cheating. For example, through all of the recounting procedures and tests of legally cast ballots there was absolutely no test to see if a voter cast multiple ballots in multiple municipalities. For instance, a student at the university may easily cast a ballot in La Crosse on election day and ANOTHER ballot via absentee at their home in say, Prairie du Chien. They could do this and there would be no way to cross check the voter’s illegal activity.
I used to say that Republicans have an uphill battle because there are so many liberal, Democrat-leaning government employees in charge of the process and Republicans have to win enough to ‘overcome the margin of fraud.’ Witnessing this recount process has forced me to fine tune that opinion. Both the margin of fraud AND the margin of error are critically important factors to consider in close elections and with Canvassing Boards interested in protecting their own ‘fiefdoms’ and colleagues, the simple procedural errors that are allowed to pile up could quickly escalate to the level of fraud.