In Wisconsin recall, voters vent anger at Washington-style politics

The Wisconsin recall has brought record-breaking political spending to the state, and as voters went to the polls Tuesday, many said they simply wanted the contentious process to be over.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted August 9, 2011 at 7:00 pm EDT

Whitefish Bay, Wis. – In the weeks leading up to Wisconsin‘s recall elections for six Republican state senators Tuesday, voters have endured a nearly constant stream of negative ads on their televisions, campaign mailings in their mailbox, and spangled signs on neighbors’ front lawns. State politics has been inescapable.

So on a perfect summer Tuesday morning at polling places like the public library in Whitefish Bay, Wis., voters like Cindi Larson of nearby Shorewood showed up not so much to vote, but rather to vent.

Republican or Democrat, people in this placid, tree-lined suburb of Milwaukee are exhausted by politics – by the anger that has coursed through the state Capitol since Republicans introduced a plan in February to strip many state unions of their collective-bargaining rights, by the political machinations involved in delaying and then passing the bill, and by the recall recriminations that have followed.

In short, they are frustrated by the entire Wisconsin political process. And it was in that mood of steely resolve that many interrupted their pleasant summer routines for a civic duty that was, on this occasion, decidedly unpleasant.

“I want to get it over with, it’s enough,” Ms. Larson says. “State politics here are getting worse than in Washington. These [politicians] are playing with our lives and they need to be sent a message.”

The recall elections are an attempt to change the partisan balance of power in the Wisconsin Senate, which currently has 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats. In addition to the six Republicans facing recalls Tuesday, two Senate Democrats face recall elections on Aug. 16.

Even if Democrats are victorious and take control of the chamber, however, they will be unable to roll back the legislation already passed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the state Assembly, which remains under Republican control.

Nonetheless, pent-up anger over the union bill unleashed recall elections that have smashed state spending records. Interest-group spending has already topped $28 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group in Madison tracks campaign financing in the state. The previous record for any election cycle was $20 million in 2008.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign predicts that once both elections are finished, total spending will have topped nearly $40 million.

The race in the Eighth Senate District, which includes Whitefish Bay, has topped the spending list. In total, the race between state Sen. Alberta Darling (R) and her Democratic challenger, state Rep. Sandy Pasch, has seen $7.9 million in spending, the highest ever on an individual state race, topping the previous record of $3 million.

The unprecedented spending, especially from out-of-state groups, has soured voters who feel the political process is being unfairly manipulated.

Gustav Moren, of Fox Point, says he voted for Darling during the last election and he sees no reason why he should be forced to vote again after she won fairly. “I can understand the problem with Walker because he pushed for changes he didn’t necessarily campaign on. But the senators have been there fair and square. They’re just paying the price for his mistakes,” Mr. Moren says.

Wisconsin laws, however, make Governor Walker ineligible for a recall vote until next year. And here in a traditionally Republican stronghold, the sorts of sign-waving, slogan-chanting public contention that gripped Madison earlier this year are largely absent.

“People here aren’t confused about who to vote for, they’ve decided. It’s the recall they want over,” says Sue Hamill of Fox Point, working from her laptop at Stone Creek Coffee Roasters, a nearby coffee shop.

Still, the emotion surrounding the issue seems certain to create a relatively high turnout, says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Voter turnout for the April 4 Supreme Court election, which became a de facto referendum on the union battle, came in at 35 percent – about 50 percent higher than normal.

Mr. Franklin predicts that Tuesday’s turnout will likely be above 40 percent. “We can reach that easily. Right now it’s just a wide open question of how above that you can go,” he says.

Results will start trickling in late Tuesday night. Because Wisconsin does not have an election night reporting system, the earliest results will come from the Associated Press, which is tasked with reporting an unofficial count based on county clerk results, says Reid Magney, a spokesman with the Government Accountability Board in Madison.

Turnout is, at this point, anecdotal. Mr. Magney says he is hearing reports of a “heavy” turnout in all six districts.

The earliest winners can be certified is next week. Candidates have three days following the official canvas late this week to request a recount. If no recount is requested, a winner can be certified. If the victory goes to a challenger, they will be allowed to take oath of their new office the following day.

But because the districts involved are relatively small, with winning margins likely at a few hundred votes, recounts are likely, says Franklin.

“That’s pretty believable,” he says.

Not everyone looks at such a prospect with dread, though, despite such a drawn-out election. Bill Anderson of Shorewood, who arrived at his polling place with his three young daughters in tow, welcomed the political ferment.

“People are getting involved in what happens in the state. The more this goes on, the more people will come out. I like that,” Mr. Anderson says.

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