WAUKESHA, Wis. — A stunning discovery of votes in Wisconsin could give the state's hotly contested Supreme Court race to the conservative incumbent in an election largely seen as a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's explosive union rights law.
Adding another twist, the county clerk who said she incorrectly entered vote totals in the race has faced criticism before for her handling of elections and previously worked for a state GOP caucus when it was controlled by the candidate who stands to benefit from Thursday's revelation.
The corrected totals gave Justice David Prosser a 7,500-vote lead over little-known liberal assistant state attorney general JoAnne Kloppenburg, according to unofficial tallies. Before the announcement, it was assumed the race was headed for a recount. The difference between the two had fluctuated throughout the day Thursday as counties began verifying votes, but at one point was as close as 11.
Opponents of the law that takes away nearly all public employee collective bargaining rights had hoped a Kloppenburg victory would set the stage for the high court to strike it down.
Kloppenburg's campaign manager, Melissa Mulliken, demanded a full explanation of how the error occurred and said an open records request for all relevant documents would be filed.
Prosser told Fox News on Thursday night that the race should not be considered a referendum on Walker or any legislation that may end up at the court. He said they are waiting out the process.
"I'm not conceding, and I'm not congratulating. And I'm not claiming victory," he said.
Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus said it was "human error" that resulted in more than 14,000 votes from her predominantly GOP county not being reported to The Associated Press on Tuesday. She said the most significant error occurred when she entered but did not save totals from the city of Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee.
"This is not a case of extra votes or extra ballots being found," Nickolaus said. "This is human error, which I apologize for."
Ramona Kitzinger, the vice chair of Waukesha County Democratic party who observed the canvass, said she is satisfied the numbers are now correct.
"We went over everything and made sure all the numbers jibed up and they did," she said.
Nickolaus worked for 13 years for a Republican caucus that was controlled by Prosser when he was Assembly speaker in 1995 and 1996. She was given immunity from prosecution in a 2002 criminal investigation into illegal activity by members of the caucus where she worked as a data analyst and computer specialist.
The corruption probe took down five legislative leaders, all of whom reached plea deals. Nickolaus resigned from her state job in 2002 just before launching her county clerk campaign.
Nickolaus also has been criticized by the Waukesha County Board for her handling of past elections and lack of oversight in her operations.
An audit of Nickolaus' handling of the 2010 election found she needed to take steps to improve security and backup procedures, including not sharing passwords. The audit was requested after the county's director of administration said Nickolaus had been uncooperative with attempts to have county experts review her systems and confirm backups were in place.
The surprise discovery of votes that could give Prosser the win had liberal groups crying foul.
"There is a history of secrecy and partisanship surrounding the Waukesha County Clerk and there remain unanswered questions," Scot Ross, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, said in a statement.
Rep. Peter Barca, Democratic Assembly minority leader, said the mistake raises significant suspicion that could warrant an investigation.
"It doesn't instill confidence in her competence or integrity," Barca said.
Prosser issued a statement saying he was encouraged by various reports from counties as they began verifying the votes. He did not specifically mention the Waukesha County change.
"Our confidence is high, and we will continue to monitor with optimism, and believe that the positive results will hold. We've always maintained faith in the voters and trust the election officials involved in the canvasing will reaffirm the lead we've taken."
The race was so close, despite 1.5 million votes being cast, that the lead flipped back and forth repeatedly on Election Day and in the days after as preliminary totals were checked and updated.
The Government Accountability Board, which is in charge of overseeing Wisconsin's elections, will review Waukesha County's numbers to verify the totals, said agency director Kevin Kennedy.
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Kennedy said it was unfortunate the clerk didn't double-check the data before releasing it to the media. Kennedy also said such mistakes are known to happen but that "we just don't see them of this magnitude."
Nickolaus said she didn't notice an absence of votes because her figures showed a 42 percent voter turnout, which exceeded the 30 percent turnout the county typically sees in spring elections.
"That was an amazing amount of votes," she said. "So I had no reason to believe I was missing anything."
Bauer reported from Madison. Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee also contributed to this report.