Things were just as heated outside the courthouse. Labor unions and Democrats, angry with Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislature, started recall campaigns against state senators in an effort to flip the state Senate to the Democrats. They succeeded in qualifying six recalls for the state ballot. Republicans, not to be outdone, qualified two recall elections against Democrats for the following week.
The time leading up to the August 2011 recall election saw its share of voting controversies. A group affiliated with the conservative Koch brothers, Americans for Prosperity, sent absentee ballot applications to Democratic areas asking recipients to send in their requests for absentee ballots two days after the election was to be held. The requests were to be mailed to a post office box shared with other conservative organizations. Liberal blogs and groups publicized the mailing as an effort at voter suppression; an AFP spokesman called it a “typo” and added, “I’m sure the liberals will try to make a mountain out of a molehill in an attempt to distract voters’ attention from the issues.”
Results from the recall elections began to roll in shortly after 8 p.m. on Aug. 11, when the Wisconsin polls closed. Control of the state Senate hung on the race in Senate District 8, pitching incumbent Republican Alberta Darling against Democratic State Representative Sandy Pasch. For much of the night, the election results did not move. Pasch had a small lead over Darling, but 10 of 11 precincts from Kathy Nickolaus’ Waukesha County had not yet reported, and 12 of 51 Milwaukee precincts, typically a Democratic Party stronghold, had not reported either.
But the Twitterverse wasn’t going to wait for results; it soon lit up with conspiracy theories. From the left, Twitter messages sporting the #wirecall hashtag were quick to accuse Nickolaus of criminally interfering with the election outcomes. “Kathy Nickolaus should be jailed for vote tampering and voter intimidation by proxy.” “Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus is either THE most incompetent clerk or a lying cheat!” “Will state of #WI get out their pitchforks&torches if Kathy Nickolaus rigs ANOTHER election?” “#WTF Is up with Waukesha county #WI I SMELL A ROTTEN FISH ! #Wiunion #Wirecall #FRAUD ! FIRE KATHY N NOW !”
The paranoia spread beyond Twitter. After Nickolaus reported most of Waukesha’s numbers, putting Darling comfortably over the top, a state Democratic Party official told the news media, “We believe there’s dirty tricks afoot.” The state chair released this statement on the party’s website: “The race to determine control of the Wisconsin Senate has fallen in the hands of the Waukesha County clerk, who has already distinguished herself as incompetent, if not worse. She is once more tampering with the results of a consequential election and in the next hours we will determine our next course of action. For now, Wisconsin should know that a dark cloud hangs over these important results.”
The paranoia on the right was just as great, but it was directed against the Democrats and the outstanding votes in Milwaukee. “Amusing that nobodys asking about MKE County being late. County with recent election fraud convictions. Waukesha is smoke screen #wirecall.” “Wait for the ACORN recounts and the absentee-voter fraud in #wirecall.” “Remember wisconsin, not only must we get more voters to vote, we have to win beyond the margin of liberal vote fraud. #wigop #tcot #wirecall.”
Pasch conceded after midnight, when it was clear the election was lost. By morning, Democrats had retracted their charges of vote tampering and removed the incendiary statement from their website. Not everyone approved of this capitulation. One person tweeted about wanting Nickolaus dead: “I wish I had a missile to shove up her fat ass! So I pray someone closer to her gets Wisconsin some justice! Now FUCK OFF!”
The Wisconsin story should provide pause for anyone worried about how this country could handle another election meltdown. And it isn’t some hypothetical scenario; we are in the midst of another close presidential election that will come down to a few swing states. If we have another razor-thin election going into overtime, the high levels of political polarization today almost guarantees that partisans will push hard for the losing presidential candidate not to concede the race, just as they pushed Al Gore to fight on in 2000.
But there are two big differences between Gore’s situation in 2000 and the situation a candidate will face in a future meltdown. First, the last decade’s Voting Wars have made partisans less likely to trust the results of a close election and more likely to believe that litigation could succeed in reversing the losing candidate’s fortunes While there used to be fewer than 100 election cases nationwide on average each year, the number has more than doubled and it peaks in presidential years. Candidates litigate early and often, and Florida 2000 still reverberates among the political elite. Second, as Wisconsin showed, social media like Twitter will fan partisan flames in ways we did not experience in 2000.
There is no shortage of sparks for this powder keg. The pretext could be vote counting machinery, partisan election officials, provisional ballots, absentee ballots, claims of voter fraud or voter suppression, unclear rules—everything would be up for grabs. And the fight would almost certainly be happening in a battleground state, where emotions would already be high because the election contest would have been fought the hardest there for months.
We should not forget the emotional aspect of these disputes. There is a feedback loop between close elections and the Voting Wars. The Voting Wars undermine voter faith in election results, especially among partisans. This makes it more likely that candidates will see less downside in challenging every close election in court. The pursuit of those remedies exposes more flaws in how we conduct our elections and inflames partisan emotions. That further undermines faith in our elections and makes candidates even more willing to go down this path.