MADISON, Wis Officials in Waukesha County on Thursday said a final review of paperwork and records from a closely watched Wisconsin Supreme Court election uncovered thousands of uncounted votes, a potentially stunning development that could upend the contest.
Unofficial returns on Wednesday gave the union-backed challenger, JoAnne Kloppenburg, a narrow 204-vote statewide lead over Republican David Prosser.
But late Thursday, the county clerk in Waukesha, a Republican stronghold, said workers had found 7,582 votes uncounted votes for Prosser.
News of the uncounted votes came as officials throughout Wisconsin were conducting county canvasses, a final review of voting records that allows the state to certify this week's bitterly contested elections.
The contest was widely seen as a referendum on Republican Governor Scott Walker and the controversial curbs on collective bargaining that he and his allies passed in the legislature.
Because Prosser is a Republican who expressed support for Walker last fall, opponents characterized him as a proxy for the governor and his anti-union policies, which triggered massive protests and 16 recall campaigns targeting lawmakers who supported and opposed the measure.
Kathy Nickolaus, the Waukesha clerk, apologized for the uncounted votes and blamed "human error."
She said at a news conference that she had failed to properly save a spreadsheet showing one town's voting results.
"I'm thankful that this error was caught early in the process and during the canvass," Nickolaus said. "The purpose of the canvass is to catch these kinds of errors."
Even before the Waukesha clerk announced her discovery, any certification was unlikely to bring closure in the passionately fought contest, where the razor-thin margin Kloppenburg had used to claim victory was certain to lead to a recount.
It would be the first statewide recount in Wisconsin in more than 20 years and could begin next week if Prosser, a former member of the assembly, requests it.
To help officials prepare, the state's Government Accountability Board sent out a memo stressing that local officials needed to "maintain all memory device and programing for the April 5, 2011 Spring Election in its original form."
"We are in unprecedented times in many respects," the memo read, "but particularly with regard to a potential statewide recount, which has not occurred since 1989 ... A thorough completion of the County Board of Canvass at this time may reconcile inconsistencies and issues that will likely save you time and effort in the pending recount process."
(Reporting by Jeff Mayers and James B. Kelleher; editing by Tim Gaynor and Ellen Wulfhorst)