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State Senate in Limbo With Recount

Lehman predicts his 834-vote lead will give Democrats the majority

Jun. 20, 2012
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The epic partisan battle for the Wisconsin Legislature is now coming down to an 834-vote difference in the 72,000 votes cast in the 21st Senate District in Racine County.

Although a canvass confirmed that Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard lost his recall against former Democratic Sen. John Lehman on June 5, Wanggaard has requested a recount and will pay an estimated $700 for the privilege.

If Lehman prevails, the Democrats will take the majority in that house with a slim 17-16 vote advantage.

So the stakes are high. But is Wanggaard's recount necessary?

Lehman doesn't think so.

“I think that the margin of victory is such that we will prevail in a recount,” Lehman said. “With the use of voting machines and the care that we think the clerks have taken, we just don't think that the votes are going to be there for him.”

Nevertheless, Wanggaard's requested recount is scheduled to begin on Wednesday. It must be completed by Monday, July 2.

In his announcement explaining why he felt a recount was justified, the Republican noted that former Racine County Judge Dennis Barry won election as district attorney in 1978 after a recount. Wanggaard's statement said that Barry “was once down on election night by 700-some votes” but eventually beat his opponent, Michael Piontek, by more than 90 votes after the recount was conducted.

But newspaper records show that Barry hadn't picked up almost 800 votes because of the recount.

According to newspaper reports from election night 1978, Barry was down by 434 votes at 2 a.m., then by 258 votes when “most” of the votes had been totaled. After counting errors had been corrected, Barry was trailing by 133 votes when he requested a recount—almost 600 fewer votes than what Wanggaard is now asserting. (Wanggaard's campaign did not respond to the Shepherd's request for comment.)

Wanggaard 'In Denial'

With so much on the line, it's not surprising that Waanggaard's Republican allies are rallying to his cause.

Burlington Republican Rep. Robin Vos claimed that “irregularities” and “fraud” contributed to Lehman's victory in what Vos sees as an “illegitimate” election. State Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) has asked the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to look into election-day processes that allegedly gave Lehman his victory, even though no “irregularities” have been confirmed.

Despite the Republicans' allegations in Racine, fellow Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen's election observers hadn't witnessed any of the “irregularities” cited by Wanggaard supporters after his loss. Racine County sheriff's deputies are now looking into the alleged irregularities.

On Monday, Lehman scoffed at the Republicans' efforts to delegitimize his victory.

“We know that Mr. Wanggaard, from early on, felt that there shouldn't be a recall, that there wouldn't be enough signatures to recall him, that the signatures were fraudulent,” Lehman said. “He's just been in denial the whole route, so it's not surprising that he's stretching this out.”

Wanggaard could continue to stretch out the transition after the recount. While the recount deadline is July 2, the candidates have five days to appeal the result to the circuit court. If Lehman prevails in the recount and Wanggaard appeals, Wanggaard would remain in office while the court hears his case.

What's at Stake

Although the official legislative session is over, Lehman's apparent win could have huge implications for the work of the state Senate.

As of this writing, the state Senate is split with 16 Republicans (including Wanggaard), 16 Democrats and one vacancy. That vacancy was created when Sen. Pam Galloway, a Republican from Wausau, resigned this spring, prior to her recall election. The vacancy will be filled by Republican Jerry Petrowski, who won that Senate seat in the June 5 recall. That will give Republicans 17-16 majority control until the Lehman-Wanggaard matter is resolved.

If or when Lehman takes office, however, Democrats will have a 17-16 majority in the state Senate, giving that party control of one chamber of the state Legislature. That prevents any Republican “shenanigans” this summer and fall, Lehman said, such as a special session being called to ram through controversial Republican-backed bills before a new Legislature is formed in January 2013.

A Democratic majority would also alter the control of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), which meets as a “mini-Legislature” throughout the year and handles fiscal affairs. Currently, the JFC is co-chaired by two Republicans, Vos and River Hills Sen. Alberta Darling, and the Senate part of the JFC is comprised of four Republican senators and four Democratic senators. If the Democrats gain the majority of the Senate, a Democrat would become co-chair and the Democrats would gain two members on the committee.

A Democratic Senate majority could also provide that party information about the workings of the Senate during this past session's Republican reign. When Galloway resigned and the Senate was split 16-16, Democrat Mark Miller became the co-chair of the Senate with Republican Scott Fitzgerald. In March, Miller had requested full access to the redistricting documents that had been crafted in secret by Michael Best & Friedrich and Republican legislators. But Miller didn't receive the documents.


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