MADISON – Wisconsin’s recount turned into a partisan brawl Wednesday night, well before the first votes began to be retallied.
The three Republicans and three Democrats on the Wisconsin Elections Commission clashed repeatedly in a late-night virtual meeting as they tried to establish guidelines spelling out how clerks should conduct the recount during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I would be delighted to see this commission actually function,” Commission Chairwoman Ann Jacobs, a Democrat, said as she sought to find a way for the two sides to decide how to consider revisions to the commission’s recount manual for clerks.
At 11:30 p.m., after 5 ½ hours of often rancorous debate, the commission unanimously approved the recount. The commissioners inability to get along suggested the recount will be brutal and will likely end in a courtroom.
President Donald Trump sought the recount Wednesday in Dane and Milwaukee counties after he lost the state by about 20,600 votes to Joe Biden. That’s a margin of about 0.6 percentage points.
The recount is to begin Friday and be finished by Dec. 1, in time for the state to certify the results.
The commissioners argued over issues minor and significant, including how to consider claims that absentee ballots were illegally issued and where observers could station themselves.
At one point, Republican Commissioner Dean Knudson suggested all the absentee ballots requested through the state’s online portal were invalid because of the way the system logs those requests.
“I hope we haven’t created a system at WEC where, you know, we somehow entice people into requesting a ballot that isn’t actually in keeping with the law,” he said.
Democrats said that position was ridiculous, noting myvote.wi.gov is broadly used by voters to request ballots.
Knudson questioned whether Democratic county clerks would treat recount observers fairly. Democrats are in charge of the recount because Trump limited his recount to the two most Democratic counties in the state.
“If they can figure out a way using the pandemic to … make it harder to see what’s going on, to make it harder to observe, then that wouldn’t be out of character because Democrats have been trying to do that for six months,” he said.
Democratic Commissioner Mark Thomsen took issue with such sentiments. He said Trump didn’t complain about Wisconsin’s election policies in 2016, when he narrowly won the state. Trump’s complaints now are baseless, Thomsen said.
“Instead of manning up and saying I lost, now he’s saying all the clerks are illegal,” Thomsen said.
Republican Commissioner Bob Spindell expressed frustration about how the recount might be run, particularly in Milwaukee, which drew national attention in the spring when it closed most of its polling locations because of the pandemic.
“I don’t think we can necessarily trust the canvassers of Dane or Milwaukee County, especially after they reduced 180 polling places to five terrible type voting centers for the April election, which caused all sorts of problems including suppression of the vote,” Spindell said.
That set off Democratic Commissioner Julie Glancey, a former Sheboygan County clerk who typically has a subdued demeanor in commission meetings.
“I’m getting a little tired of the Democrat bashing going on here,” she told Spindell. “I could list a dozen instances in my career as county clerk where Republicans did something egregious. This is ridiculous. All you and Dean keep talking about is, these evil Democrats are going to do something nasty so that these honest, hardworking Republicans aren’t going to be able to see what’s going on and I’m tired of that.”
The commissioners deadlocked on key provisions of its recount manual, such as whether absentee ballot applications need to be reviewed as part of the recount. Their inability to reach an agreement on that issue left in place guidance that says those applications must be reviewed — even though that isn’t the case, according to the commission’s staff.
The Democrats said the counties should follow the state’s recount law and not necessarily the recount manual the commission approved.
Thomsen said the state’s manual comes with an asterisk because the commission deadlocked on some elements of it. Knudson didn’t care for how Thomsen characterized their disagreements.
“We never voted on an asterisk,” Knudson responded.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.