The petition drive to recall and remove Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has surpassed all expectations, collecting one million signatures in just 60 days. The signatures represent the largest recall effort in the history of the United States.
Petitioners were only required to collect 540,000 by law. They far exceeded this number, making a successful legal challenge of the recall highly unlikely. Volunteers also gathered 845,000 signatures to recall Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and additional signatures to recall four of the state senators who voted for Walker's collective bargaining bill in March 2011, creating a mountain of paper estimated to weigh over one ton.
The numbers coming out of Wisconsin are stunning. Of the 19 states that permit the recall of governors, Wisconsin has one of the highest thresholds. For governors (and legislators), recall organizers must gather signatures equaling 25 percent of the turnout in the previous election for the office. That means organizers faced the daunting task of collecting 540,000. To avoid losing the election through signature challenges, signature collectors wanted a "cushion" of additional signatures, so they set a goal of 720,000 signatures. They surpassed even that goal.
When California governor Gray Davis was recalled in 2003, residents collected 1.6 million signatures out of 21.1 million eligible voters or approximately 7.6 percent. In Wisconsin, 25,000 trained volunteers had 60 days to collect approximately 1 million signatures from 4.37 million eligible voters or approximately 23 percent. Plus, 1 million is almost half of the votes cast in the 2010 Wisconsin gubernatorial election. Wisconsin volunteers did it with less money, over the holiday season and in the depths of winter.
As a heavy snow fell on Wisconsin, volunteers explained that the 3,000 pounds of petitions would be delivered to the non-partisan elections board in trucks escorted by armed security guards. Volunteers from United Wisconsin, the grassroots organization that took charge of collecting the signatures, have designated two volunteers from each of Wisconsin's 72 counties to hand carry a box containing a portion of the petitions to highlight the fact that the work took place in every corner of the state.
In the months to come, the remarkable story of the recall organizers' massive, grassroots, signature-collecting drive is likely to be lost to the unprecedented sums of money the campaigns and the independent expenditure groups will raise and spend, and to the charges and counter-charges that will volley back and forth as they do in all elections, but today recall organizers celebrated.
Tina Nelson, a Dane County Coordinator for United Wisconsin, said she was "unbelievably excited," but also "wondering what to do with myself" now that she did not have thousands of emails to send and volunteers to organize. In Dane County, the liberal bastion surrounding Madison, volunteers collected an estimated 160,000 petitions.
But signatures came from red as well as blue areas of the state. In conservative Walworth County, represented by Rep. Paul Ryan in Congress, volunteers collected an estimated 10,000 signatures, 2,000 more than their goal. "I am feeling pumped, optimistic and gratified," said Ellen Holly, a United Wisconsin coordinator for the county. "But deep down, I am also a little bit angry and sad. I have never lived somewhere where I had to recall my government before," she explained.
Volunteers in the small town of Burlington, which voted to support George W. Bush and John McCain and strongly backed Scott Walker in 2010, collected over 6,000 recall signatures from the area. Mary Ann Staupe, a retired school teacher, explained why people signed: "I asked every person who came into [the Burlington] office. Every person added another piece to the puzzle. Collective bargaining was just the tip of the iceberg. People were also concerned about neglected schools, neglected infrastructure, health care changes that hurt the poor and the disabled. Many people have friends and families in those situations. It was a huge tent."
In Delavan, Scott Walker's home town, volunteers set up shop in "Circus Park" in the town's tiny main square, where a towering statue of a giraffe watches cars roll by. On the first day that volunteers circulated petitions "we created a traffic jam. People were whipping up in their cars like NASCAR trying to be among the first to sign. Delavan was our 'hot spot' for a very long time," said Holly.
For Peggy Ellerkamp, a high school librarian, signature gathering felt more like a civic duty. "Walker has caused so much damage in less than one year," Ellerkamp said, referring to Walker's anti-union budget repair bill, $1.6 billion in public school aid cuts, Wisconsin's precipitous job losses, and the general climate of despair and anger in the state. "Just think what he can do if we don't get him out of there by end of his first term."
The unofficial estimates coming in from around the state are impressive. Over 14,000 from Sheboygan County (6,000 above the goal) and 9,000 from Manitowoc County (2,800 more than the goal). Although Wisconsin Republicans have been raising the specters of "Mickey Mouse" signing petitions multiple times, the petitions were checked and rechecked.
Volunteers described a meticulous process by which signatures were reviewed first by the circulator, then by the local recall office, then in a regional recall office, then at the Madison headquarters. Volunteers were first looking to make sure the record was complete and correct. They also scanned for questionable names and other mischief. No one I spoke to reported any problems other than the occasional "WI" in the zip code spot. "We wanted to do it right, we knew that every signature had to count," said Staupe, who described the process as "arduous." In Madison, the recall office apparently entered all the records in the computer in an attempt to scan for duplicates.
The latest employment figures show Wisconsin lost 14,500 jobs in November. The latest poll shows that support for the recall is around 58 percent, up from 47 percent in the spring. For Scott Walker's lawyers, delay appears to be their strategy. During that delay, Walker can continue to raise unlimited campaign funds and has already brought in close to $5 million, approximately half of which is from out of state.
In a normal recall, lawyers representing the candidate targeted for recall would review each signature and challenge any that seem inappropriate or unclear. Each challenge would be considered by the nonpartisan elections board. That is the way recalls have been handled in Wisconsin for decades, but even with 5,000 volunteers at the ready to review signatures, the Walker camp decided to bring a lawsuit to change standard procedure and lay the burden of the recall review on the small state elections board. On January 6, they succeeded in convincing a court to order the elections board to conduct a costly review. Kevin Kennedy, the head of the elections board, testified that entering signatures into a database and looking for duplicates could take eight extra weeks for his staff or might require the hiring of an outside computer firm.
Yesterday, Kennedy told the press, "we used to say that we could see an election as early as late May, but now we just don't know." An eight-week delay when the numbers are so overwhelmingly in favor of the petitioners is likely to spark a court challenge of its own. Some anticipate that the whole issue is likely to end up in the hands of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, no stranger to partisan bickering and controversy.
Putting off worries about the future and the massive amount of work ahead, thousands of recall volunteers prepared to party tonight at Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace, the site of Scott Walker's 2010 inaugural.
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