Wisconsin Supreme Court Race May Hinge On ‘Undervotes’

Patch.com’s review of local races finds hundreds of people who cast ballots Tuesday, but did not vote in the high-profile race.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Milwaukee-area voters went to the polls Tuesday but did not vote in the hotly contested state Supreme Court race, according to local voting results.

And the issue of whether those people actually intended to vote for the high court could be a key factor in a looming recount that one expert says could bring back memories of Florida in the 2000 presidential election.

More than 900 people in 16 southeastern Wisconsin communities cast ballots in Tuesday’s election between Justice David Prosser and Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, but did not register a vote in the final tally. With Kloppenburg leading Prosser by 204 votes, these “undervotes” and hundreds more in communities around the state will be an important part of the likely recount of the race’s more than 1.4 million votes.

Reviewing Tuesday’s results from Milwaukee-area communities, Patch found at least 985 incidents of ballots cast without a vote in the Supreme Court race.

Observers said any number of reasons could explain why some ballots were cast, but do not have votes in the Supreme Court race. Most obvious, voters may have simply skipped voting in the race. But they may also have made a mark that wasn’t recognized by the counting machine. Part of the recount will include reviewing ballots to ensure all votes are recognized.

“The totals could easily swamped by the number of unrecorded ballots,” said Bruce Hansen, an econometrics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who analyzed the controversial Florida election results in 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush. “It could easily swing the results."

John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette, said the state Supreme Court race recount may be as messy as the Florida presidential election recount of 2000 or the Minnesota U.S. Senate recount in 2008.

Without looking at each ballot, it’s difficult to decipher how many voters simply abstained from voting in the race, and how many voters meant to pick one of the candidates and botched it, he said.

If a vote was clearly meant for one of the candidates, the courts have previously ruled that vote should count, he said. 

“I’m not an election law person, but in general the courts have said that if there is a perceptible intention to vote for X, it needs to count as a vote for X,” he said.

McAdams said there could be any number of reasons why someone cast their ballots for other races and skipped the state Supreme Court race, especially given the amount of money spent and mudslinging in the Prosser-Kloppenburg tilt.

“It’s plausible there might be some people who have real strong opinions about friends and neighbors in this village or that town and simply choose to vote in races close to them,” he said.

Improvements in voting technology should lead to a smoother recount than what would have occurred in Florida in 2000, Hansen said. In that race, the infamous “punch cards” and a flawed ballot design in Palm Beach County raised several questions about whether voters’ intentions were truly represented in the count.

Since then, most communities have eliminated punch cards and gone to technologies, such as using touch screens or scanners to count ballots with arrows connected by voters, designed to minimize the potential for muddied ballots.

Voting technology isn’t typically a major issue – at least until there’s a really close election, Hansen said.

“Everyone starts thinking about them the day after an election like this,” he said. “Then you find out how inaccurate they can be. You don't care so much when the margin is huge.”  

Hansen, who typically studies economic statistics, got involved with the undervotes in recounts in 2000 as staticians around the country attempted to sift through the political debate in Florida and determine a scientific way to examine the confused ballots. He created models that found undervotes reflected the voting patterns of the community they found. So if a community voted 60 percent to 40 percent for a candidate, the undervotes were also split about 60 percent to 40 percent.

Ultimately, though, politics and legal arguments won over statistics, said Hansen, who predicted politics would play a role in the upcoming Supreme Court recount. 

“Our experience 11 years ago was the attempt to do the recount became extraordinarily political,” he said. “That I can forecast happening again here.”  


'Undervotes' in the State Supreme Court Race

Hundreds of voters cast ballots in Tuesday's elections, but did not register a vote in the closely contested Supreme Court race. Here's a breakdown of "undervotes" in select communities in the Milwaukee area. 


Total Ballots Cast

Prosser votes Kloppenburg votes Write-ins Undervotes Brookfield 14,396 10,859 3456 165 Caledonia 8,384 5,031 3,325 28 Fox Point 3,035 1,537 1,438
60 Greendale 5,684 3,568 2,027 9 80 Greenfield 10,702 6,277 4,272 153 Menomonee Falls 11,772 8,449 3,265 58 Muskego 8,341 6,020 2,207 7 107 Oak Creek 8,818 5,314 3,406 10 88 Port Washington 3,162 1,991 1,162 9 0 Saukville 1,096 801 291 4 0 Shorewood 5,619 1,616 3,908 95 Sturtevant 1,304 697 566 41 Sussex 3,083 2,292 769 22 Wauwatosa 17,549 9,704 7,680 165 Whitefish Bay 6,108 3,179 2,827


Compiled by Patch.com from local municipalities

Julie April 08, 2011 at 08:30 PM
The numbers above reflect less than 1200 votes. One wonders how many more that were destroyed in Mequon (only one noted by media) and those using different colored ink (not an accident perhaps?) would provide to this whole process. Flashing back to Al Franken's election and votes appearing out of car trunks and on napkins, one must wonder what is in store for any future elections in our state.
Julie April 08, 2011 at 08:39 PM
I suspect many people intentionally did not want to vote for Prosser or Kloppenburg. Will someone contact those people to see who they forgot to vote for? Wouldn't that bother you as a voter and possibly keep you from voting in the future? Oh, never mind, I get it now......
Ron April 13, 2011 at 02:55 PM
A Sad day - when Elections for a State (or US) Supreme Court positions are based on politics. Do we rule on law or based on the party choice? Remember - you get what you voted for! Ron
Dennis Allen April 22, 2011 at 04:20 PM
Diane, are you now saying that you believe that she actually won the election ? Talking about having to " put up with her for 10 more years ". And how did the unions usurp the elections ? Enlighten us, if you will.
Dennis Allen April 22, 2011 at 04:30 PM
To Bob: yes it could backfire, but I don't think it will. The people have filed recals on 5 Rep. senators so far and I think there will be at least 1 more. Of those I believe the Dems will convert 4 seats. I might be wrong, but then again I could be right. Strike that, ( I will never be Right ) , correct.


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