'Referendum' on Union Rights Still Too Close to Call in WI

'Referendum' on Union Rights Still Too Close to Call in WI

A new front opened last Tuesday in Wisconsin's month-long battle over union rights, which moved to the courts two weeks ago. (See Battle Over Union Power in WI Shifts to Courts) The state held an election for Supreme Court justice, which pit Democrat-backed challenger Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg against Republican-backed Justice David Prosser, who is seeking his second 10-year term. The first statewide vote since Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed legislation curbing the power of public employee unions, the officially nonpartisan election was viewed as a referendum on the issue. 
 
"This has really become a proxy battle for the governor's positions and much less a fight about the court itself," said Charles H. Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
 
Voters appear to be fairly evenly split on the matter. After a night of seesawing back and forth between the two candidates, Kloppenburg led Prosser Wednesday by a mere 204 votes out of the nearly 1.5 million cast - a margin of 1/100th of one percent - according to an unofficial tally by the Associated Press. 
 
The voting patterns had a familiar partisan look. County by county, the vote closely tracked that of another recent election, the 2004 presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry, in which the two candidates were separated by less than half a percentage point. Kloppenburg carried virtually the same counties won by Kerry, and Prosser won pretty much the same counties carried by Bush. 
 
Last week's race shared something else in common with the 2004 contest: a highly engaged electorate. The turnout for the presidential race was the highest of any election in the state in half a century. And Tuesday's turnout was without parallel among recent contested court races: 34 percent, exceeding the 20 percent, or 874,000 voters, election officials had predicted by 69 percent, or 600,000 voters. Put another way, the nonpartisan contest between Kloppenburg and Prosser drew nearly as many voters as the state's 2008 presidential primaries, which featured Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. 
 
Kloppenburg claimed victory in the court race on Wednesday. 
 
"Wisconsin voters have spoken, and I am grateful for, and humbled by, their confidence and trust," she said in a statement. 
 
But on Thursday, Kathy Nickolaus, the clerk of Republican-leaning Waukesha County, informed state election officials that she would be releasing new vote totals giving 8,000 additional votes to Prosser, swinging the race significantly in his favor. 
 
Regardless of the fallout from that bombshell, it will probably be a while before the contest is settled. Official tallies from all 72 of the state's counties still have to be submitted. And a recount is almost a certainty - with lawsuits likely to follow. 
 
As for what last week's "referendum" says about the impact of the state's union fight on future elections, it appears to be anyone's guess. 
 
"The way it looks right now, both sides are so motivated and so turned out that it would be very hard to forecast how a vote would go down the road," said Charles H. Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (WISCONSIN JOURNAL SENTINEL, REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES) 

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