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Wisconsin Court Race Linked to Union Fight Heads Toward Recount

A recount of “unprecedented” scrutiny is likely in a Wisconsin Supreme Court race where 204 votes separate the candidates out of almost 1.5 million cast, a state elections official said.

For now, challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg leads Justice David T. Prosser Jr., according to an unofficial tally from the Associated Press. The race became a proxy fight over curbs on collective bargaining rights enacted in Wisconsin that sparked weeks of protests and became a national cause, with millions of dollars of campaign money pouring in from outside the state.

Verifying the accuracy of the vote will take several weeks, and if there are legal challenges to determine who won the court seat, the outcome could be delayed longer, said Kevin Kennedy, director of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections.

“We are living in a time when there are charged emotions,” Kennedy told reporters yesterday at a news conference in Madison, the state capital. “Like it or not, not everyone can win this election.”

At stake is the make-up of the seven-member court that will likely rule on the union law championed by Republican Governor Scott Walker and challenged in a lower court.

A recount will officially begin today at the county level, Kennedy said, adding that he expects an official request from one candidate for a statewide re-tallying within 10 days.

While no official request for a recount has been made, the sliver-like margin separating Kloppenburg and Prosser makes it likely. Officials of both campaigns met with Kennedy yesterday.

‘Counting Them Twice’

“We’re counting the votes and counting them twice,” Brian Nemoir, Prosser’s campaign manager, said in a telephone interview.

Kloppenburg, an assistant state attorney general, declared victory yesterday, saying “Wisconsin voters have spoken.”

Lawyers have not. In the recount of the Minnesota U.S. Senate race in 2008, lawyers for Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman fought for eight months before the state Supreme Court declared Franken the winner by 312 votes in July 2009.

Almost four weeks of protests in Madison over the collective bargaining issue served as fuel for a court race that had received little notice until then.

Unions and Democrats mobilized against the bill, while Republicans rallied around Walker, who was elected in November.

Recall Efforts

Walker signed the bill into law March 11. Legal challenges have delayed its implementation, and the issue has sparked recall campaigns began against 16 state senators -- eight Democrats and eight Republicans. And the Supreme Court race became consumed in the disputes over Walker’s bargaining law.

Political groups spent almost $3.6 million on television ads in the race, with the majority supporting Prosser, according to data released by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. The amount was a state record for television spending by non-candidate organizations, the center said in a statement.

Prosser, 68, was a Republican lawmaker for 18 years and became a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in 1998. His campaign website says, “I present myself as a judicial conservative, devoted to the constitution and the rule of law.”

Kloppenburg, 57, has been a litigator in the state Justice Department since 1989, serving under attorneys general from both parties, according to her campaign website. She has donated to Democratic candidates in past years.

Primary Results

Prosser won 55 percent of the vote in the nonpartisan primary Feb. 15, while Kloppenburg was second with 25 percent, according to the accountability board.

In a news conference yesterday, Walker rejected the assertion that the election was a referendum on the union law, and said he welcomes a recount “as long as it’s fair.”

Debates about public employees’ bargaining power and benefits have unfolded in several states -- including Ohio, New Jersey and Indiana.

In Ohio, where Republican Governor John Kasich has signed into law a similar bill limiting collective bargaining for government employees, two Democratic lawmakers said they are introducing a bill to let voters recall statewide elected officials and legislators. The bill, aimed at Kasich, is inspired by efforts in Wisconsin to recall senators in the wake of the collective-bargaining fight there, said state Representative Mike Foley, a Cleveland Democrat.

The Wisconsin law, which passed with no votes from Democrats, limits most government unions to bargaining for wages alone; raises can’t exceed inflation unless voters agree. The measure requires increased contributions for health-care and pensions, and prohibits automatic dues collection from workers’ pay.

The district attorney of Dane County, which encompasses the capital of Madison, sued to block the law, saying that legislators violated the state’s open-meetings statutes in passing the measure.

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