Election law expert Rick Hasen asked the group that gathered recently at the University of California’s Washington Center to consider a “hypothetical world” in which the country has a very close presidential election:
“Let’s say the presidential election comes down to Wisconsin and its 10 electoral votes. At about three o’clock in the morning, the numbers have stopped coming in. The Democrat is ahead by about 200 votes out of about 6 million ballots.
“The Republicans start complaining about the election. Claims of voter fraud start filling up conservative blogs. All over Twitter, things are heating up.
“The next morning, Kathy Nickolaus, who is the election supervisor of Waukesha County, Wis., holds a press conference. At that press conference, she said, ‘I was collecting all the results as they were coming in from the different parts of my county on my laptop and it turns out I forgot the city of Brookfield and its 15,000 voters.’
“When you add in the entire city of Brookfield, it turns out the Democrat is now behind and the Republican is ahead by 7,000 votes.
“So, now it’s the Democrats’ turn to complain. The liberal blog Think Progress points to the fact that Kathy Nickolaus used to work for the Republican state legislature.
“The URL at the top [of the story] reads ‘Kathy Nickolaus Crook or Idiot?’
“Ramona Kitzinger ... is supposed to be looking over the shoulder of the Republican [Nickolaus] to make sure that the vote totals are accurate. The next day, she issues a statement through the Democratic Party. The statement reads in part as follows: ‘I’m 80 years old and I don’t know anything about computers. I don’t know where the numbers Kathy showed me came from, but they seemed to add up. I’m still very, very confused.’”
Once the incredulous and at times nervous laughter subsided, Hasen pulled back the curtain on his big reveal — that the story he just told was true and the only detail changed was that it wasn’t a presidential election but Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race. The winning justice ultimately decided the fate of the state’s collective bargaining reform law, unleashing a flood of partisan bickering in the state.
The same scenario unfolds in the opening pages of Hasen’s new book, “The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown.”
After describing the meltdown in Wisconsin — which serves as a parable and possible harbinger of things to come — Hasen walks the reader through the battles over voter identification measures, registration purges, vote-counting policies and failed technology that have taken place over the past decade, many of which are still issues as the next elections near.
Hasen starts with the abandoned Florida recount that sent George W. Bush to the White House instead of Al Gore. Palm Beach County’s “butterfly ballot” is described as “calamitous” for its voters. The county-level canvassing boards handling the surge in overseas ballots “threw all the rules out the window.” Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, presided over a “reckless” purge of possible felons from Florida’s voter rolls. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Goreto halt the recount set the stage for deeply partisan conflict over election law and administration.