News & Politics

Wisconsin Recall Breaks Record for Signatures Despite Best Efforts of Pro-Walker Media to Undermine Campaign

Behind reports of recall volunteers being harassed, effort crossed half-million signature mark on Thursday.

The grassroots campaign to recall Wisconsin’s embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker crossed a major milestone this week that displayed its organizing prowess and growing political power. The Democratic Party announced that it gathered more than a half-million signatures midway through a 60-day petition drive—breaking state records.

But if you were only learning about the recall from Wisconsin’s mainstream media in recent weeks, particularly watching television news, where millions of dollars of pro-Walker ads have been airing, you wouldn't be left with a view of a competent new political operation. Instead you'd be hearing all about Walker supporters attacking the petition circulators -- including some arrests, Walker opponents signing petitions numerous times, fueling GOP fears of voter fraud -- and reports questioning the credibility of the state board that is overseeing the recall campaign.

“These sideshows are just that,” said Graeme Zielinski, Democratic Party spokesman. “Is this happening to some degree? I have no doubt. Is it bad? Yeah it sure is. But is this the story of the recall? No, it is not.”

The Wisconsin recall campaign has had instances of misguided behavior by individuals on both sides—though virtually every account of threats or violence has been aimed at recall supporters. But the focus by some of the state’s biggest media organizations on electoral chaos not only distorts what is really going on, it helps Walker's supporters.

“It doesn’t matter that it makes some of these Republicans look bad,” Zielinski said. “It stitches a cloth of fear and hysteria that makes people drop out of the process.”

Walker supporters have been caught on video jumping out of trucks to threaten circulators, even defacing or ripping up petitions—and later arrested. Wisconsin’s biggest television stations have covered this chaos, just as they filmed a Milwaukee man admitting he had signed recall petitions maybe 80 times. And they have covered top officials at the state board who will validate petition signatures, making it sound like clearly fabricated names could be counted, with headlines on television Web sites such as, “Mickey Mouse, Adolf Hitler Allowed On Wis. Recall Petitions.”

But the fixation on bad behavior eclipses what has actually been a historic and mostly orderly effort. Indeed, on Thursday, Mike Tate, the Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman, announced it had collected 507,000 signatures in the 30 days.

“At least half a million Wisconsinites have risen to take back Wisconsin,” Tate said in a webcast. “This means filling [the Green Bay Packer’s] Lambeau Field to capacity nearly seven times… We’d like to fill Lambeau Field a few more times, to send a message that Scott Walker has seriously misjudged the people of Wisconsin.”

The recall campaign has until January 17 to collect signatures and turn in petitions. The governor’s supporters then have 10 days to challenge individual signers before the state Government Accountability Board, which will determine if at least 540,208 signatures—or one-quarter of the people who voted for governor in November 2010—are valid.

GAB has said it will take at least 60 days to review the petitions. If it certifies the recall, it will set an election date six weeks later. That means the special recall election is likely to come in May or June—after the state’s presidential primaries.

This timetable, particularly the 10-day window to challenge—and remove what will likely be tens, if not hundreds of thousands of individual petition signers—clearly worries Republicans.

The governor’s allies and Wisconsin GOP have launched an effort to recruit volunteers to examine the petitions. The Government Accountability Board, composed of six former judges who pledge to be non-partisan, has said it will release copies of the petitions in a digitized format, either online or on CD.

In the meantime, the GOP’s attacks on the process’s credibility are mounting.

After GAB this week explained it was the governor’s burden under state law to identify signatures whose credentials were to be challenged, the Associated Press and several TV stations ran stories suggesting that someone signing “Adolph Hitler” on a recall petition would be counted. Follow-up reports by the same television stations suggested GAB could count the same name many times. The board then issued a detailed explanation of why that was not the case on Wednesday.

The Democratic Party’s Zielinski said the GOP’s strategy—assisted by media allies—to create doubt over the certification process was as predictable as it was hypocritical. The Republicans did not complain about GAB’s petition certification process this summer when they tried to recall several Democratic state senators, he said, or in years past when they tried to oust other high-ranking Democrats.

“They had no problem with the verification process when they were trying to recall Gov. Jim Doyle, when they were trying to recall Senators Herb Kohl or Russ Feingold, or with the recall movement that put Scott Walker as Milwaukee County executive,” he said. “None of them had any problems with the verification process then.”

Zielinski emphasized that isolated instances of Walker allies intimidating circulators—or recall supporters signing petitions more than once—were regrettable but not uncommon in heated campaigns. But single instances of questionable behavior are not statewide trends. 

“I challenge any of these people to go through any of Scott Walker’s 30,000 nomination signatures and see if there is not a duplicate in there—and see what they say then,” he said. “Duplicates are an infinitesimal part of the picture. They are trying to demean the process because they cannot defend Scott Walker’s record.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).