WASHINGTON -- Few races next year will carry as much symbolic importance as the campaign to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). His push to strip state workers of collective bargaining rights set off a nationwide debate over the role of unions and public workers and reenergized progressives who were still recovering from the tough losses they sustained during the 2010 elections.
Both sides recognize the importance of the campaign, which is also targeting the lieutenant governor and three Republican state senators. Progressive activists are working to collect enough petition signatures to force a recall of the governor, and Walker and his allies have already started an ad campaign in response.
Underlying all this is a scattered amount of isolated, underhanded activity that may be illegal. The past weekend even saw two arrests of recall opponents.
On Sunday, a man was arrested on allegations that he defaced recall petitions.
"The suspect stood in line to sign a petition and when given the petition clipboard, he scribbled out some names on the actual form, and the recall worker took the clipboard back, and he left the scene without any incident," West Bend, Wis. police Sgt. Matt Rohlinger told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Police arrested another woman from Thorp, Wis. after she reportedly grabbed a sign from recall volunteers, tore it up, threw it on the ground and then drove away. Officers charged her with disorderly conduct and criminal damage to property.
The tenor of the campaign was set right away on Nov. 5, when a Walker supporter surprised Wisconsinites and filed a recall petition against the governor.
As the Wisconsin State Journal reported, Walker opponents immediately suspected the unusual move "was made to give the governor a chance to begin raising money before organizers begin their actual recall campaign." Walker was able to start raising money to challenge the recall 11 days before Democrats had planned to launch their efforts on Nov. 15.
Just one day after Democrats began gathering signatures, Caledonia Patch reported on at least three individuals who were collecting signatures to recall Walker but had no intention of turning in the petitions to be counted. The Government Accountability Board, which oversees state elections, responded that not handing them over would be illegal. In fact, destroying or defacing petitions is a felony, punishable by a $10,000 fine or up to 3 1/2 years in jail.
Although the individuals eventually said they would turn in the petitions, there were online rumors of a larger effort to sabotage the petition-gathering known as "Operation Burn Notice." Police were also looking for a man who allegedly ripped up petitions.
A student from Edgewood College in Wisconsin also reportedly ripped up a petition on his campus, after which he tweeted a confessional message to Walker: "Today I ripped up a petition form to recall you."
"Rather than even attempt to defend Scott Walker's extreme agenda that has torn our state apart and cost Wisconsin workers thousands of jobs, Republicans have resorted to dirty tricks to sow confusion in a desperate attempt to stifle the voice of Wisconsin's middle class," said Ryan Alexander, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
Alexander added that they hear about vandalism, threats or other questionable incidents on a daily basis from their supporters who are working to recall Walker, although many of them aren't publicly reported or do not appear in the press.
On Nov. 22, the progressive group One Wisconsin Now set up a $10,000 reward fund "for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of any individual guilty of fraudulently destroying or defacing recall petitions from today until the end of the recall gathering process on January 14, 2012."
"We cannot allow democracy to be threatened by those who would illegally destroy recall petitions with valid signatures on them," said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now. "We intend to keep the public informed about its rights during the signature gathering process and alert those who would engage in illegal conduct that they do so at their own peril."
There's also been a significant amount of confusion about the rules of signing petitions. State Treasurer Kurt Schuller (R) tweeted that it was illegal for residents to print off a petition at home, sign it and return it. According to the GAB, Schuller was wrong, and Politifact rated his statement "false."
Kelly Gallaher, the organizer for the progressive group Community for Change, told the Racine Journal Times that a driver deliberately backed his vehicle toward a group of petition circulators.
Bill Folk, chairman of the Racine County Republican Party, told the Journal Times that he wasn't aware of the incident, but condemned it if it was true.
"I would never assume anyone would do such a thing," Folk said. But if it's true, he said, "I'm appalled. ... It should not be done."
Local police departments have also received a number of reports of vandalized signs and threats about potentially more serious harm.
On Saturday, the progressive Cap Times called on Walker to denounce the dirty tactics being perpetrated by his most "misguided" backers.
"This is an opportunity for the governor to redeem himself," wrote the paper. "He should step up now and unequivocally denounce threats, intimidation and violence that is done in his name by supporters who imagine that they are defending the governor by assaulting the democratic process. By doing so, Walker can avert troubles, ease tensions and signal that he does still have the ability to rise above petty politics."
On the other side, Walker's supporters have charged that recall activists have collected signatures on private property where they're not welcome and worried that people are double-signing petitions, and the Republican Party of Wisconsin has set up a hotline and website for people to report fraud or intimidation.
Republicans objected to recall activists' strategy to collect signatures on Black Friday near malls and shopping centers, arguing the plan would harass shoppers. The party also said owners of the properties should call police if the petition-gatherers did not leave immediately when asked.
Neither Walker nor the Wisconsin GOP returned requests for comment.
"We understand that emotions can run high in these sorts of situations, but we're advising people that petition fraud and destruction is a felony, and we're asking people to act like adults in this process," said Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney. "We are hoping ... that cooler heads will prevail, that people will realize this is not a game."
GAB has set up a hotline and website where people can register complaints. The board has the power to investigate incidents of wrongdoing, although it also forwards complaints to local district attorneys who decide whether to prosecute.
"We can make sure that the district attorney in a particular county where something is alleged to be going on gets this information. In one sense, we're serving as a clearinghouse. If you're circulating petitions and somebody grabs your petition and rips it up, your first call should be to the police, not to us," said Magney.
To trigger a recall election, Walker's opponents -- coordinated by the group United Wisconsin -- need to collect 540,208 valid signatures by Jan. 17, which is 60 days after the campaign first launched. Organizers said they are aiming for 600,000 to 700,000 signatures.
On Nov. 28, United Wisconsin announced it had collected more than 300,000 signatures for the recall effort in just 12 days.
An election could occur as early as March 27, although it will likely be later if Republicans challenge the petition signatures or file lawsuits.
The Walker recall is the next step in a campaign to oust state Republicans who pushed forward controversial budget legislation stripping collective bargaining rights from state employees. In August, Democrats recalled two Republican state senators from office, but they fell short of the three needed to take control of the chamber.
There have been only two successful gubernatorial recall elections in history -- one against California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and one against North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier in 1921.
No Democrat has stepped forward yet to announce a challenge to Walker in a potential recall race. Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said the party won't put a candidate forward until early 2012 in order to avoid deflecting focus and ensure the effort remains a referendum on Walker.
Clarification: Language has been added to this entry to clarify that there have only been two successful gubernatorial recalls, not successful recalls in general.