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Wis. Supreme Court Race Faces Recount

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We've been telling you that Wisconsin is a deeply divided state. Now we have a snapshot of just what that means. Nearly one-and-a-half million residents cast ballots there yesterday in a hotly contested race for the state supreme court. Today, the challenger is up by only 204 votes.

As Wisconsin Public Radio Shawn Johnson reports, that means a likely recount in a race that could ultimately decide the fate of a controversial plan to curb public workers' collective bargaining rights.

SHAWN JOHNSON: You might expect election night parties to be a study in contrasts - one side jubilant, the other side dour. But the message late last night from both candidates for Wisconsin Supreme Court: go to bed. Challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg told supporters she was optimistic, but that the race was too close to call.

Ms. JOANNE KLOPPENBURG (Assistant Attorney General, Wisconsin): Let's all get a good night's sleep and see what tomorrow brings. Thank you.

(Soundbite of cheering)

JOHNSON: Incumbent Justice David Prosser told the crowd gathered to cheer him on, that he prepared two speeches: one for a victory and one for a defeat.

Mr. DAVID PROSSER (Judge): I don't have a speech of an impasse at 1:40 in the morning.

JOHNSON: Just a few months ago, nobody saw this coming. Prosser was expected to coast to victory and preserve what is by many measures a 4-to-3 conservative majority on the court. The race changed practically overnight after Governor Scott Walker introduced his proposal to curb collective bargaining rights for public workers. Thousands of protesters looking for a channel to direct their anger at the governor found an outlet with this campaign.

They carried prosecutor Kloppenburg on their shoulders. Meanwhile, outside groups dumped a record $3.5 million into TV ads. Kloppenburg issued a statement declaring victory this afternoon, based on her 204 vote lead projected by the Associated Press. But the AP did not plan to call the race, saying it was too close.

Kevin Kennedy heads the Government Accountability Board, which is Wisconsin's elections agency.

Mr. KEVIN KENNEDY (Executive Director, Wisconsin State Elections Board): This is as close a race for statewide that we've ever had.

JOHNSON: The race also saw a remarkably high turnout for an officially nonpartisan race, with both the Democratic and Republican bases fired up. Thirty-three percent of eligible voters went to the polls, shattering predictions of a 20 percent turnout.

While Kennedy says there's no reason to believe the vote totals aren't accurate, they're only a first step.

Mr. KENNEDY: The big thing is is that all the results that are being reported to the media are unofficial. Nothing has been certified and it won't begin to be certified till tomorrow.

JOHNSON: Once that happens, with a margin this close, there will almost certainly be a recount. All that's needed is for the candidate who's behind to ask for one. Kennedy says he's had the benefit of watching a recount in neighboring Minnesota involving U.S. Senator Al Franken. If that race is any guide, any recount here could quickly get ugly.

Attorney Rick Esenberg teaches law at Marquett University.

Professor RICK ESENBERG (Law, Marquett University): In a recount which is this close, there's a tendency for it to descend into ballot by ballot war.

JOHNSON: A protracted challenge only muddies the question of how the court might handle challenges to the governor's collective bargaining plan that supercharged this race to begin with. One of those cases is already at the court's doorstep. And people hoping this race might be a bellwether for upcoming recall campaigns against state senators could be disappointed, though Democrats say there's much for them to like about the Supreme Court race, no matter how it turns out.

For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.