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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.

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