By Ruth Conniff
It really is Fitzwalkerstan.
Kathy Nickolaus, County Clerk in heavily Republican Waukesha, announced in a press conference yesterday that she had made a "human error" in recording vote totals, and that the real total is 7,500 more for Justice David Prosser than reported on election night.
That just happens to put Prosser in the winner category, barely out of range of a state-financed recount.
Nickolaus apologized for her mistake, but, on the positive side, said she was "proud" of the higher turnout than previously reported in her county.
But wait, it gets better. Nickolaus worked for Prosser years ago when he was a Republican assemblyman in Madison, Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan reminds us. And she was granted immunity to testify during the 2002 Republican caucus investigations, concerning campaign finance violations by Republican legislators and their staff.
Better yet, since taking her job as county clerk in Waukesha, Nickolaus has insisted on keeping election data on her personal computer, under her personal control.
Hence those awkward moments at the press conference when she switched from using the word "we" to the word "I" as she described how she saved the data as vote totals came in and really has no idea how it came out wrong in the end but still accepts full responsibility for the "human error."
How does she know it was human error if she thinks she did everything right, reporters asked her.
Well, maybe some software feature wasn't enabled, she allowed.
Is there any way to figure out now what went wrong, reporters asked.
"Not that I'm aware of," Nickolaus replied.
The error turned up during the "canvass" process, in which paper records from voting machines are compared to the computerized reports of vote totals. Brad Friedman of the Bradblog points out the best part: Nickolaus has insisted on keeping elections data on a personal computer in her office -- to which she alone has access -- and rebuffed demands by auditors that she upgrade to a safer and more tamper-proof system.
Friedman quotes a Journal-Sentinel article on the controversy around the audit and Nickolaus's unorthodox practice of hoarding control over elections data.
"Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus' decision to go it alone in how she collects and maintains election results has some county officials raising a red flag about the integrity of the system," the Laurel Walker of the Journal-Sentinel reported. "Nickolaus said she decided to take the election data collection and storage system off the county's computer network -- and keep it on stand-alone personal computers accessible only in her office -- for security reasons. 'What it gave me was good security of the elections from start to finish, without the ability of someone unauthorized to be involved,' she said."
The Journal Sentinel reported in January that Nickolaus was chastised by county board member Jim Dwyer for sneering and smirking during a hearing on whether she had adequate safeguards on the computer system that keeps track of votes. As Walker reported it, county board members got angry at her attitude. "'There really is nothing funny about this, Kathy,'" [Dwyer] said, raising his voice. 'Don't sit there and grin when I'm explaining what this is about. Don't sit there and say I will take it into consideration,' he said, asking her pointedly whether she would change the passwords. 'I have not made my decision,' she answered."
As one outraged Wisconsin elections official put it:
"This woman has single-handedly destroyed the credibility of my entire profession. The important detail here is not whether the numbers are right or not (they very well may be, as the explanation from the board of canvass is at least plausible). The real issue is how the process of reporting was so distorted by secrecy that the public was denied access to the raw data in real time." The damage to voter confidence in the state is " irreparable."
Meanwhile, Prosser has hired Ben Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer who worked on the Florida recount for George W. Bush.
Get enough people in the right places and this whole democracy problem can be cleared right up.
Ah, Wisconsin, the civilized, clean-government, open-meetings state. How we miss you.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Wisconsin Leads the War on Public Schools."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.