The painful, futile, ridiculous Wisconsin recount

November 25, 2020 7:00 am
Anti-vote protest

BLM counter protesters and anti-vote Trump supporters clash at the Wisconsin State Capitol. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

What better way to spend a snowy, slushy Thanksgiving week than gathering during a pandemic with your community to recount ballots in a presidential election that was not remotely close? 

In the only two Wisconsin counties where President Donald Trump paid for a recount — Dane and Milwaukee — there is no doubt whom the voters preferred. Joe Biden won Dane County with 260,185 votes to Trump’s 78,800, according to the verified county canvass reported on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website. In Milwaukee County the vote was 317,270 for Biden to 134,357 for Trump, according to the canvass results reported to the Elections Commission. 

The Trump campaign is not going to change those outcomes by “rifling between the couch cushions” looking for lost votes, as attorney Jeffrey Mandell put it. But that won’t stop them from spending the holiday trying.

Even as Michigan certified its election for Biden on Monday and the Trump administration quietly lifted its ban on transition activities, tacitly admitting that Trump is leaving office and thereby allowing the Biden team to prepare to take charge, the Wisconsin recount continues — right up until Dec. 1.

Trump continues to tweet misinformation about Wisconsin and which ballots are legal and how the process works. Meanwhile local officials and volunteers are working diligently in each of the state’s two most diverse and Democratic counties, which the Trump campaign has targeted with its unsubstantiated accusations of fraud. 

“I think they came in incredibly uneducated and wanting to object to everything,” says recount volunteer Renee Lauber, who spent the first three days of the recount at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, helping observers look at ballots and decide whether to challenge them or not. On the first day, Lauber says, she waited while observers waved over Trump campaign attorneys, who patiently explained why they couldn’t throw out ballots that had addresses with no zip code or that were witnessed by a voter’s spouse. By day three, she says, the observers seemed a little more informed. But the going was slow and tedious with so many challenges, and most of all, she felt uncomfortable about the observers’ resistance to social distancing. 

When one observer got close to her with his mask underneath his nose. “I asked him to cover his nose and he called me a few choice words including Nazi,” she says. “When I went to get security, he apparently had a few more choice words for me. Then he walked by again, apparently with a Republican Party attorney and clicked his heels and did a full Heil Hitler salute for me while the attorney laughed.”


Lauber decided three days was enough and went home. Volunteering as a poll worker felt important, she says, but showing observers all the ballots and envelopes one by one didn’t require any special skills and, in the end, she decided it wasn’t worth risking her health. 

Elections officials have no choice, though. Even though Trump’s claims of fraud have been laughed out of court, and even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion, our sore loser-in-chief is within his rights to pay for a partial recount. Which is why the clerks in Dane and Milwaukee counties and their staff are stuck indoors patiently overseeing this exercise in futility all week.

“We are on track to finish on time at this point,” Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said toward the end of day five. “Yes, the challenges are delaying the recount. Not sure what anyone can do about it. … We are trying to enforce COVID procedures. It is much better than when we began. This whole event is dangerous to begin with. The statutory requirements make doing this recount very hard.”

It’s particularly galling, as Isiah Holmes reports, for activists who worked hard to get out the vote in Milwaukee, and who know damn well why the city is being targeted, just as Republicans have focused relentlessly on baseless allegations of fraud in Detroit. The point of focusing on these locations is to say that Black voters are suspect — that somehow they cheated — and to try to undermine their votes.

Thus, the same ballots that are not being challenged in other counties — including votes cast during the state’s window for in-person, early voting and absentee ballots cast by elderly or disabled people who self-identify as “indefinitely confined” — are being segregated and questioned in Wisconsin’s two largest cities. If those ballots are eliminated, they will only be eliminated in places where large numbers of Black and brown people live.

It’s a toxic message that is not lost on voters who have had to deal with voter suppression, threats by gun-toting white supremacists and who have taken the brunt of the pandemic besides. 

The absurdity of Republican arguments for throwing out votes cast in good faith and according to the rules was exposed when the attorney leading the Wisconsin recount effort, Jim Troupis, was reduced to arguing that his own and his wife’s votes should be thrown out as illegal. Troupis, a former Dane County judge, and his wife voted in person during Wisconsin’s early voting period, as did tens of thousands of other Wisconsinites. Republicans are arguing that all early in-person votes should be thrown out because voters did not fill out an absentee ballot application before voting (instead they filled out the same information on ballot envelopes). Troupis’ name appears on an exhibit he submitted to the Dane County board of canvassers purporting to show “illegal” votes, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. He declined to comment on why he voted in a way he deemed illegal.

Can you blame the Milwaukee officials who, on day five of the recount, met observers arriving at the Wisconsin Center and made them put on special identifying wristbands, as Mary Spicuzza of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports — stamped with poop emojis? (The clerk claims he thought they were chocolate ice cream.)

This is what democracy looks like in 2020.

Time to turn the page!

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.