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More Twists and Turns in Wisconsin

By Lisa Pease
April 12, 2011

I’m still mulling over the recent Wisconsin election in general and the actions of Waukesha County’s County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus in particular.

She was the one who forgot to record votes that would have made her former boss, Justice David Prosser, the winner in a hotly contested election.

After my first report on this strange set of circumstances, data surfaced to show that the missing city’s data had been reported earlier by the city itself. The numbers Nickolaus reported were an exact match.

So it doesn’t look like anyone made up the numbers for the missing town’s results in Brookfield. And then there was the stamp of approval from Democratic Party member Ramona Kitzinger who said the numbers “jived” with what she had been shown.

Still, questions persist. Is Nickolaus the type to simply miss 14,000 votes? "She's an excellent detail person," State Sen. Joanne Huelsman, R-Waukesha, had said of Nickolaus in 2002. Huelsman had known Nickolaus from her work as a legislative staffer involved in statewide legislative redistricting. 

Some activists have privately (and publicly) expressed concerns that the vote was padded elsewhere in the County to give the Republican the needed victory – not just a win, but a win big enough not to trigger an automatic recount. Then, as the theory goes, the County Clerk went looking for a city with the needed number of votes to explain the suddenly increased vote total. Brookfield had the right total.

This starts to sound like a crazy conspiracy theory. And frankly, I was about to dismiss it myself, until I found out that Ms. Nickolaus had lost and found votes in her database once before in an eerily similar way.

In a 2006 election, one of the Republican primary candidates for the 97th Assembly District, Christine Lufter, was declared the winner. But Kathy Nickolaus and her team determined that votes from the city of Waukesha were missing, having been recorded in the “wrong column” in the database, according to one report.

Nickolaus and her team worked until 1:00 a.m. to correct the error, which took away Lufter’s slim victory and handed it instead to her opponent Bill Kramer by a significant margin. Officials in other counties, who had numerous errors of their own to deal with, had posted their results hours earlier, leading some to question what took Nickolaus and her team so long.

Of course, mistakes really do happen. Innocent mistakes can be made. Some errors are relatively harmless, but others can be damaging.

In 2005, Kathy Nickolaus had to apologize to the electorate for the mistaken publication of a sample ballot with one candidate’s name already checked. (The other candidate ultimately won.)

In 2004, the wrong ballots had been given to at least 83 people, resulting in miscast votes. This happened because two polling places shared the same room. Reportedly, there was no way to distinguish which ballots were recorded in the wrong district.

As a onetime election inspector myself, that sounds odd to me, because at least in Los Angeles County, each set of ballots was sequentially numbered. If their ballots were also numbered, and why wouldn’t they be (unnumbered ballots would be an invitation to commit fraud by submitting extra ballots), Nickolaus and team should have been able to undo and redo the miscast votes.

Other questions remain:

How trustworthy is Nickolaus?

Kathy Nickolaus was granted immunity in 2002 in her capacity as a 13-year data analyst and computer specialist to the Assembly Republican Caucus, which had been charged with illegal campaign activities. Nickolaus’ role included building software to average Republican turnouts by ward, a skill that would be really important if someone wanted to rig votes without raising red flags.

That same year, Nickolaus resigned her job and ran for County Clerk in Waukesha County. (That the good people of Waukesha didn’t think there might be a possible conflict of interest there, given her background, seems stunning.)

While she was running for office, she came under suspicion of an ethics violation: Nickolaus had purchased voter lists with state money. Nickolaus claimed the lists were not for her own campaign, and a state Ethics Board eventually concurred.

Is it possible to rig the election via Access?

Kathy Nickolaus used the Microsoft Access database, a relatively simple database, to track the county’s votes. In the video clip below, noted election activist Bev Harris of described to Howard Dean just how to manipulate an election. The “central tabulator” referred to is a simple Access database that summarizes the results from the election.

Can you prove an election was rigged?

That’s the problem. Once you digitize an election and rely on that, instead of the paper ballots, you have something that can be manipulated in undetectable ways. Anything digital can be altered. Votes can be altered.

There have been races reversed due to computer “error.” But to my knowledge, no one has yet proved that “errors” represented deliberate fraud. But if the manipulation was expertly done, there would be no evidence. So while we can’t say it has actually happened, neither can we say with certainty that it hasn’t.

So what are we to make of the “found” votes?

Remember Ramona Kitzinger, the Democratic Party member of the official Waukesha canvassing board who ostensibly vouched for the results? Kitzinger is so upset with the way her statement has been used that she issued a new one that, far from corroborating Nickolaus’s numbers, raises more questions.

Kitzinger is 80 years old, and, according to her statement, doesn’t “understand anything about computers.”

Kitzinger’s new statement paints a very different picture. Normally, Kitzinger noted, the official canvass begins Thursday morning. For whatever reason, a staffer in Nickolaus’s office called Kitzinger, an official observer for the Democratic Party, to the canvassing on Wednesday.

At no point before the press conference did Nickolaus or anyone mention any missing votes from Brookfield.  

“In fact,” Kitzinger’s statement notes, “Brookfield City came up specifically during the course of Thursday’s canvass. In retrospect, it seems both shocking and somewhat appalling there was no mention of discovery of this 15,000 vote ‘human error’ that ultimately had the potential to tip the balance of an entire statewide election. How is this possible?”

Kitzinger explained the situation that led to her apparent endorsement of the “found” Brookfield numbers:

“Once the canvass had been completed and the results were finalized, I was called into Kathy [Nickolaus]’s office along with Pat (the Republican observer) and told of an impending 5:30 pm press conference. It was at that point that I was first made aware of an error Kathy had made in Brookfield City.

“Kathy told us she thought she had saved the Brookfield voter information Tuesday night, but then on Wednesday she said she noticed she had not hit save.  Kathy didn’t offer an explanation about why she didn’t mention anything prior to Thursday afternoon’s canvass completion, but showed us different tapes where numbers seemed to add up, though I have no idea where the numbers were coming from.

“I was not told of the magnitude of this error, just that she had made one. I was then instructed that I would not say anything at the press conference, and was actually surprised when I was asked questions by reporters.

“The reason I offer this explanation is that, with the enormous amount of attention this has received over the weekend, many people are offering my statements at the press conference that the ‘numbers jibed’ as validation they are correct and I can vouch for their accuracy.

“As I told Kathy when I was called into the room, I am 80 years old and I don’t understand anything about computers. I don’t know where the numbers Kathy was showing me ultimately came from, but they seemed to add up.

“I am still very, very confused about why the canvass was finalized before I was informed of the Brookfield error and it wasn’t even until the press conference was happening that I learned it was this enormous mistake that could swing the whole election.

“I was never shown anything that would verify Kathy’s statement about the missing vote, and with how events unfolded and people citing me as an authority on this now, I feel like I must speak up.”

Computers were supposed to make counting elections easier and more honest. But in the end, a computer is only as honest as the person who is operating it.

The right thing to do here, regardless of the margin of victory, is to do a full hand recount of Waukesha County’s ballots. According to the Wisconsin Secretary of State’s information, voters voted on paper ballots that were then optically scanned.

Rather than running those ballots through a computer, I and others who care about the integrity of our vote, no matter where we live, would love to see a hand count of all the ballots in that county. If the results hold up, fine.

While a lot of voters were upset by the prospect of a Scott Walker ally keeping his spot on the Supreme Court, their upset would be far greater if there’s the chance that Prosser retained his seat through some form of election manipulation. The former, they can accept. The latter would leave them in despair.

Let’s hope Kathy Nickolaus does the right thing. Count all the votes. By hand. In front of observers. Only then can people have faith that the vote was correct.

Lisa Pease is a writer who has studied the recent history of voting irregularities, especially those involving computers.

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