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Milwaukee County presidential recount wraps up with Biden adding to his margin over Trump

  | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Milwaukee County’s recount of the presidential election vote tally came to an end Friday, with Democratic President-elect Joe Biden adding 132 votes to his margin of victory over President Donald Trump in Milwaukee County.  

In all, Biden gained 257 votes and Trump added 125. The results came Friday evening, seven days after the effort to recount nearly 460,000 ballots cast in the county began at the downtown Wisconsin Center. The final tally totaled 459,723.

Before the recount, Biden had 317,270 votes in Milwaukee County to Trump’s 134,357. The recount boosted the totals to 317,527 for Biden and 134,482 for Trump.

Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson said after the Milwaukee County Board of Commissioners adjourned at 5:30 p.m. that the recount demonstrated that elections in the county are fair, transparent, accurate and secure.

“I promised that this would be a transparent and fair process, and it was,” Christenson said. “There was an examination of every ballot by election workers, a meticulous recounting of every ballot that was properly cast, a transparent process that allowed the public to observe, a fair process that allows the aggrieved candidate who sought the recount an opportunity to observe and object to ballots they believe should not be counted.”

He said the county met all of the unique challenges presented in the recount, not least of which was the coronavirus pandemic.

And Christenson, a Democrat, and the three-member Board of Canvassers’ lone Republican, Rick Baas, highlighted the bipartisan work during the recount. 

Baas said he trusted the Trump campaign “is looking forward to its day in court” and that some things had to be corrected during the recount. 

“It is important for people to understand how their government works,” Baas said. “A recount is just that: a recount. Now, there’s evidence that will be taken to another level and it will be reviewed there, but this body has conducted itself in a manner that is exemplary. We were not the rest of the country. We did not have yelling, screaming, shouting. We had counsel that could make an articulate argument. We’ve done the best we can do given the circumstances that we’re under.” 

The Dane County recount was expected to continue into the weekend, after a day off for Thanksgiving. Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell tweeted Friday morning that the recount was about 65% done and he expected to finish Sunday.

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The recounts have to be completed by Tuesday, in time for the state Elections Commission to certify the results by a deadline for that day set in state law.

Trump’s campaign paid $3 million for the partial recount in the Nov. 3 presidential election, requesting a retallying of the votes only in the state’s largest and most liberal counties of Milwaukee and Dane.

Trump lost the state by nearly 21,000 votes to Biden.

The defeat came after Trump won the swing state by a similarly narrow margin in his 2016 race against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The campaign has unsuccessfully tried to get large swaths of votes thrown out in Milwaukee and Dane counties, but the controversy over the votes may not end when the recounts do.

Political observers believe the challenges Trump representatives lodged during the recount process were intended to set the stage for a lawsuit. A legal challenge has the potential to further change the vote tally the county arrived at Friday.

But since the recount began, the ground has shifted across the nation, with the key states of Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania certifying their vote tallies for Biden and the Trump administration clearing the way for Biden’s transition into the White House to officially begin.

During the recount, everyone who entered the room in the Wisconsin Center had their temperatures taken to ensure they did not have a fever and all were required to wear masks because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the course of the seven days, the three-member Milwaukee County Board of Canvassers — two Democrats and one Republican — and attorneys for each campaign argued over individual votes and large categories of ballots. There were delays in the first couple of days as, according to county officials, Trump observers issued one objection after another.

There were tense exchanges between board Chairman Tim Posnanski, a Democrat, and Trump campaign attorney Joe Voiland, a former Ozaukee County judge, over the enforcement of a policy limiting the taking of photos by observers. At one point, Posnanski told Voiland he was reminded of the peasant from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” who yells, “Help, help I’m being repressed.”

And, of course, there was the brief squabble over the poop emoji wristbands handed out Tuesday by the Wisconsin Center to denote that those who entered the building were fever-free.

The recount made headlines when the City of Milwaukee found 386 unopened and uncounted absentee ballots from a south side ward. The Board of Canvassers voted unanimously, 3-0, that the ballot envelopes should be opened and ballots counted.

In the subsequent days, the city realized it had misplaced 65 additional ballots. City Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg reported to the board Wednesday that the ballots had been found only to report Friday that they remained missing.

“After I had gone before the board, I looked at (the ballots) and my heart just sunk,” Woodall-Vogg told the Journal Sentinel of realizing the ballots actually remained misplaced.

Christenson said the 65 missing ballots would not be counted unless they could be found Friday before the county’s election results were certified. The ballots were not accounted for Friday.

There were 344,220 absentee ballot applications filed in Milwaukee County for the November election, with 108,947 voters participating via in-person absentee voting, according to data provided by the county from the statewide voter registration database. Of the requested ballots, 18,408 were not returned. Of the absentee voters, 51,060 self-certified as indefinitely confined, allowing them to vote absentee without meeting the state photo ID requirements.  

Over the course of the recount, election workers were instructed to set aside absentee envelopes with different color ink denoting that a clerk completed a witness address and absentee envelopes that identify indefinitely confined voters. The Trump campaign had standing objections to those ballots but was overruled by the board, which agreed to set aside the envelopes.

The campaign also objected to in-person absentee envelopes, which was also overruled. There were 108,947 voters who participated in in-person voting in the county, according to county records. Those were not set aside because of the sheer volume. 

Ultimately, the tally of envelopes set aside came to 42,234.

All ballots with the associated envelopes that were set aside were counted.

The Trump campaign contended Friday that by not allowing the separating out of additional categories of absentee ballot envelopes and ballots, the recount process had not allowed the campaign to know exactly how many ballots and envelopes it is objecting to.

“This procedure has prevented us from determining the precise number of envelopes or ballots which are subject to those objections,” attorney Stewart Karge told the Board of Canvassers. “This process has therefore denied us the ability to establish on the record here the exact number of ballots or absentee envelopes subject to our objections. If those objections are subsequently sustained, it will be necessary to re-examine those envelopes and ballots to determine the exact number of votes that should be rejected and not counted as part of this recount.”

He said those categories include envelopes with missing witness signatures for in-person absentee voting, absentee envelopes with no clerk initials and ballots without the “requisite clerk’s initials.”

Biden attorney Christopher Meuler said before the board adjourned that the state’s election administrators and poll workers made “heroic efforts to conduct a free and fair election and to ensure that all Wisconsinites could vote and have their ballots counted.” 

He added: “Petitioners have failed to provide any evidence of fraud, they have repeatedly made challenges and objections to disenfranchise voters on technical issues. And as the factual record indicates … no instances of fraud were discovered during this recount.”

Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr

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