I have spent the past month compiling a timeline of the events of the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election, and I find them...interesting. In fact, color me impressed. Not only did Scott Walker somehow manage to win a race projected in exit polls as dead even the whole day by an ultimate margin of 6.8 percentage points, but supposedly received this massive infusion of votes in the final moments of the election - like Indiana Jones slipping under the descending rock wall and retrieving his hat just in the nick of time...and then pulling a rabbit, a bag of diamonds, and a naked blonde out of that hat. And he did it all with voters that support Barack Obama by a similar if not greater margin. Bravo, Mr. Walker. With a performance like that, he must be a devoted student of both Harry Houdini and Andy Kaufman.
Of course, more prosaic explanations come to mind than legions of Democratic-leaning voters turning out to support the man trying to erase their political existence, but let's not indulge in untoward speculation based on nothing more than common sense, history, statistics, voting patterns, and the documented behavior of the Walker administration. Let us instead just go through the recall election and its precipitating circumstances event by event so we can discern what magical properties brought about this oh-so-plausible outcome.
All facts directly concerning the election or controversial behavior of Scott Walker are cited, although I should note that sometimes the only date available is of the first reports of an event that I've found, which isn't necessarily the same as the date of the event itself. I have not combed Twitter or blog feeds looking for up-to-the-minute reporting except for election day, so events prior may have occurred a day or two before the listed date:
Nov. 2, 2010:
Scott Walker defeats Tom Barrett by a 5.8 percentage point margin, 1,128,941 votes to 1,004,303 for a majority of 124,638 votes.1 Overall turnout is 49.7%.2 It is a GOP-favored election season characterized by modest Democratic turnout and high Republican turnout nationally.3 Although one of his campaign pledges involved cutting state employee pay and benefits, I've found no mention of Walker saying he would reduce or eliminate public employee collective bargaining during the campaign - i.e., voters did not know this was his intention.
Jan. 3, 2011:
Scott Walker inaugurated Governor of Wisconsin. The oath of office he swore:
I, Scott Walker, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state of Wisconsin; and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of Governor to the best of my judgment and ability, so help me God.
Feb. 11, 2011:
One month into his term, Governor Walker proposes a raft of sweeping legislation virtually eliminating collective bargaining rights for public employees4 and using the money taken from proposed pay and benefit cuts to finance business tax cuts. The same day he announces the proposal, Walker threatens to deploy the Wisconsin National Guard and militarize civil service positions if his radical measures result in disruption to critical government functions.5 In other words, he anticipates that his own actions might cause chaos, and openly declares his intention to impose his will by military force if his policies lead to the functional collapse of civil governance in Wisconsin. No word on whether this would have invovled wearing a purple toga and gold leaf-crown.
Feb. 14, 2011:
Protests against the anti-union bill begin.
Feb. 15, 2011:
Protest turnout reaches tens of thousands in Madison.
Feb. 16, 2011:
Estimated protest turnout reaches 30,000.
Feb. 17, 2011:
All Democratic state senators leave Wisconsin in order to deny a quorum and prevent passage of the bill.6
Feb. 19, 2011:
Two of the largest public employee unions offer to accept pay cuts in exchange for keeping overall collective bargaining rights. Walker tells them to piss off.7 Estimated protester numbers grow to 70,000.
Feb. 20, 2011:
Protesters begin occupying the Wisconsin state Capitol building.
Feb. 23, 2011:
A now-famous prank call is made to Scott Walker pretending to be David Koch. During the call, Walker discusses having considered plans to subvert and discredit the protests by placing hired goons among the protesters to distort their image and promote disreputable behavior.8 He also makes clear that eliminating public employee unions is the primary objective of the legislation under consideration, and that budgetary considerations are simply a convenient pretext. Walker mentions threatening mass-layoffs as a potential tactic to compel obedience.9 In another matter, he illegally orders Wisconsin state troopers to visit the home of an absent Democratic state senator in order to compel his presence.10 Breaking the law: No big deal to Scott Walker.
Feb. 25, 2011:
The WI state Assembly controlled by Republicans cuts off debate on the anti-union bill and holds a vote without warning, allowing for only 5-15 seconds of voting. The bill is passed, with nearly two-thirds of Assembly Democrats prevented from voting.11 Republicans once again demonstrate their strong commitment to upholding the democratic process.
Feb. 26, 2011:
Protester numbers are estimated at 70,000-100,000.
Feb. 27, 2011:
Walker threatens to fire 1,500 - 12,000 public employees if his demands are not met.12 Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Democratic Party is short on hostage negotiators, so they're at a disadvantage.
Feb. 28, 2011:
The largest Wisconsin public employee union files a labor complaint against Governor Walker for refusing to negotiate.13 Meanwhile, Walker illegally closes the Capitol to the public in direct violation of a provision of the state constitution explicitly ruling out denial of access to the Capitol.14 Breaking the law, up to and including ignoring constitutional rights: No big deal to Scott Walker.
March 1, 2011:
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney refuses order to assign deputies to block entrance to the Capitol, insisting that his officers are not to be used as "palace guards" in violation of the law.15 This was a slightly out-of-the-ordinary comment for a law enforcement official to make about the behavior of an American governor.
March 3, 2011:
Democratic Assemblyman Nick Milroy is tackled by police trying to enter the Capitol. He decries the "armed palace environment created by Governor Walker."16 The state senate passes a resolution unconstitutionally ordering law enforcement to arrest Democratic senators who have fled the state to avoid a quorum.17 James Palmer, the head of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, declares the move illegal and says the state senate has no authority to issue such commands.
March 9, 2011:
Republican state senators use a procedural maneuver to pass the anti-union bill without the otherwise needed quorum, apparently in violation of Wisconsin open meetings laws.18 A procedural objection on behalf of the open meetings law is ignored. Thousands of enraged democracy protesters storm the Capitol in response.
March 10, 2011:
The final conference-committee version of the bill passes the Assembly. Protesters once again storm the Capitol.
March 11, 2011:
Governor Walker signs the bill virtually eliminating public employee collective bargaining rights. As his demand had been met, he rescinds the 1,500 layoff notices he had earlier issued.19 Two separate lawsuits are undertaken by Democratic public officials arguing the bill was passed in violation of state open meetings laws.20
March 12, 2011:
Protester numbers grow to an estimated 85,000 - 185,000.
March 15, 2011:
Scott Fitzgerald, Republican WI Senate Majority Leader, announces that Democratic state senators who have returned from out of state will not be permitted to vote and any votes they do take will neither be counted nor recorded.21 The Republican idea of freedom and democracy shines eternal.
March 25, 2011:
Republicans ignore a judicial stay on the anti-union bill and bypass the Secretary of State's office in order to publish the bill as law, vowing to enforce it as such.22 Rule of law: Optional if you're a Republican.
April 3, 2011:
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Walker, while demagoguing public employee pay and eliminating collective bargaining rights, hired the girlfriend of a Republican state senator at a salary $13,000 per year higher than the preceding occupant of the position without going through a formal application process.23 Walker also hired the son of the executive vice-president of the Wisconsin Builders Association to an $81,500 per year job overseeing dozens of public employees despite having no college degree, little experience, and two DUI convictions. Within two months, the guy received a 26% pay raise and a promotion.24 Gee, I wonder if Walker's corrupt attitude toward the hiring process would also apply to his own job.
April 5, 2011:
Wisconsin state Supreme Court election between JoAnne Kloppenburg and openly partisan Republican David Prosser. Prosser had won the Supreme Court primary just two months earlier against Kloppenburg by a margin of thirty points, but as the election became politicized and Prosser was tied more explicitly to Walker25, the race was ultimately dead-even. The primary result had been divided between four candidates: Prosser 55%, Kloppenburg 25%, Marla Stephens 11%, and Joel Winnig 9%.26 If all votes for Stephens and Winnig went to Kloppenberg in the general election, the result would have been 55% to 45% for Prosser. As the general election result was tied, this means that either 5 percentage points of Prosser's primary vote switched to Kloppenburg, or 5 percentage points worth of more voters turned out to vote against Prosser, or some combination of the two. What is striking about this is that the swing occurred over the course of two months as he became associated with Walker's policies. No clear winner was found on the day of the voting.
April 6, 2011:
The first count favored Kloppenburg by 208 votes, which was small enough to produce recounts. Her lead continued on the 6th.27
April 7, 2011:
Two days after the election, after detailed recounts had failed to eliminate Kloppenburg's lead, deeply Republican Waukesha County suddenly "discovers" 7,500 Prosser votes that for some reason had not been reported in the original count or recount28, and commensurately revises its original official tally of countywide turnout from 42% to 47% - a full 14 percentage points above the statewide turnout, and 22-27 percentage points higher than initial estimates on election day (20-25%).29 This kind of sudden, inexplicable vote surge at proverbial two minutes to midnight is a harbinger of things to come.
March - May 2, 2011:
Recall petitions are circulated against eight Republican and eight Democratic state senators over events surrounding the anti-union bill. Six petitions against Republicans gather sufficient signatures to trigger recall elections and are submitted within deadline. All but three petitions targeted at Democrats fail. At this point, Walker opponents are clearly far more motivated than supporters.
May 3, 2011:
Special elections held for three vacant, previously Republican Assembly seats resulted in one Democratic pickup by a substantial margin.
May 23, 2011:
The Wisconsin Supreme Court election is certified for Prosser 50.2% - 49.8%, with 750,804 votes to 743,487: A margin of 7,317 votes.30 The magic votes, which materialized only the moment Republicans knew they needed them, were the sole reason for Prosser's victory.
May 26, 2011:
Judge strikes down anti-union bill because the process under which it was passed violated state open meetings law.31
Wisconsin Republicans openly solicit their members to officially switch parties and enter recall elections as fifth column Democrats to create delay, discord, and confusion.32 They must have underestimated how distinctly other people can smell them. Cost to the state of the fifth column candidacies is estimated at $475,00033 while Republicans were slashing budgets and claiming the state needed to save money at all costs. Republicans: Intrepid pioneers of the New Low.
June 14, 2011:
Wisconsin Supreme Court rules 4-3 against lower court ruling striking down anti-union bill, with the vote occurring along partisan lines. Prosser is one of the four.34
June 27, 2011:
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Bradley files a criminal complaint accusing fellow Justice Prosser, a conservative Republican who had been one of the four upholding the anti-union bill, of physically attacking her and putting her in a chokehold on June 13 during consideration of the bill.35 Prosser insists it was self-defense. No word on whether he was shirtless and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon at the time he played the "she hit me first" card.
Koch-backed Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity mails fake ballots to Democrats with a listed election date two days after the real one and a return address operated by an affiliated group.36 Yes, Virginia, Republicans commit election fraud.
July 15, 2011:
Recalled Democratic state senator Dave Hansen retains seat.
July 29, 2011:
The Government Accountability Board details attempts by Republican voter-ID advocacy group "We're Watching Wisconsin Elections" to deceive poll workers about the standards of identification required under the law to vote.37 This was an apparent attempt to cause legally eligible voters to be turned away from the polls. Yes, Virginia, Republicans commit election fraud.
August 9, 2011:
Two of six recalled Republican state senators lose their seats.
August 16, 2011:
Both remaining recalled Democrats retain seats.
Sept. 20, 2011:
Poll shows public opinion on Walker's anti-union agenda evenly divided, with 50% against and 49% in favor38. This is identical to poll results showing dead even support and opposition for the Walker recall (despite more complicated views on the general standards for initiating a recall), so either a large block of voters supported the recall just as an opportunity to reaffirm support for Walker, which is nonsense; or a seven-point block of people opposed to his agenda and supportive of the recall switched to Walker (there is no evidence they stayed home instead) for no apparent reason and failed to appear in unadjusted exit polling; or opinion on Walker's agenda, on his specific recall, and the overall exit-polled vote were consistently dead-even because that was an accurate picture of the voting public.
Nov. 15, 2011:
Effort officially begins to recall Scott Walker.39
Feb. 17, 2012:
Judge denies Walker request to delay 2012 recall election.40
March 6, 2012:
Temporary restraining order against Walker-backed voter ID law.41 Apparently Walker and his supporters thought high voter turnout would be bad for him.
March 12, 2012:
Government Accountability Board certifies recall petitions against four more Republican state senators.
March 29, 2012:
Wisconsin Government Accountability Board certifies 900,938 signatures on the recall petition against Walker.42 This is 82% of the number of votes Scott Walker got in 2010, and 41.6% of all votes cast in that election (see numbers and sources for first item in timeline). It is also 36% of the total number of votes ultimately cast in the recall election, meaning that for the official results to be true, either petition signatories stayed home in droves or 84% of voters who did not sign the recall petition would have had to vote for Walker - roughly the same as his performance among self-identified conservatives. Given that non-signatories include undecideds, moderates who only pay attention close to election day, and liberals who just hadn't bothered to sign the petition, a performance statistically identical to that among conservatives is preposterous.
May 8, 2012:
Gubernatorial recall primaries. Democratic turnout: 670,288. Republican turnout: 646,458.43
May 30, 2012:
A spam message is blasted out to Wisconsin cellphones urging the recipient to inundate the Barrett campaign's phone system in order to shut it down. It succeeds.44 Apparently Republicans were worried about the Barrett campaign. Walker also reportedly began diverting up to $100,000 in campaign funds toward a legal defense fund in anticipation of possible charges in the federal John Doe investigation into various criminal activities earlier in his career, including embezzlement, coercion, and use of taxpayer funds for his campaigns.45 He is legally allowed to use these funds, but only if he is under direct investigation for offenses involving breaking election law.46 Yes, Virginia, Scott Walker is a crook with no respect for the democratic process.
Few days before June 5, 2012:
Robocalls originating from a GOP phonebank falsely telling voters that if they signed the recall petition they don't need to vote on election day because their signature would be counted as a vote.47 Yes, Virginia, Republicans commit election fraud.
June 5, 2012:
Gubernatorial and state senate recall election. One of four Republican state senate seats in the recall election is won by the Democratic candidate. The proportion of recall voters who support Obama over Romney increases substantially as the election proceeds.Scroll through live blog Detailed timeline of election day, reflecting the first mention I can find of a new development:
(All times Pacific due to time noted on internet news reports as accessed by me - add 2 hours for Central time in Wisconsin)
2:58 PM: Exit polling thus far has Walker job approval at 50-50, about the same as the final polled vote before polls closed.
3:53 PM: Exit polling has 50% unfavorable view of Democrats, and 50% unfavorable view of Republicans - about the same as the polled vote before polls closed.
6:00 PM: Polls close on a dead heat. Still 50-50. Major media predict counting will go on all night, if not into next day. Polling shows union voters more heavily against Walker than in 2010, and also a larger percentage of the electorate than in 2010.48 Conservative proportion of voters is lower (!) than in 2010 - 34% vs. 37%, having declined 3 percentage points. Independents sharply reduced support for Walker relative to 2010 - 50% vs. 56% two years ago. He loses women by 12 points as opposed to 3 points in 2010. Not much room for a victory even bigger than 2010 amid all these demographic losses relative to 2010.
6:23 PM: It appears that Matt Drudge claimed adjusted exit polling had Walker winning close to the final margin before such results were released, and quickly removed the statement from his site. Such prescience tends to occur in elections of this sort.
6:28 PM: Nate Silver reports exit polls are a tie.
6:52 PM: MSNBC calls the race for Scott Walker, less than an hour after polls close on a dead heat, and just a few tens of minutes after media had been reporting a tie and predicting long night of vote counting. Just another in a seemingly endless streak of Very Strange occurrences.
Final official result is Walker with 53.1% vs. Barrett with 46.3% - a margin of 6.8 percentage points, which is a full percentage point higher than his performance in 2010 despite all the previously identified demographic losses.49 Walker's official margin is too large to permit a taxpayer-funded recount, and Barrett has no immediately obvious grounds (let alone resources) to pursue one independently. Barrett concedes. I have been unable to find similarly large deviations from exit polling in the other races occurring that day, which makes it seem improbable that the fault is with the polling. As mentioned earlier, for this result to have legitimately occurred, all voters who did not sign the recall petition - including moderates, independents, some liberals, and just people who simply weren't paying attention earlier - would have had to break for Walker at roughly the same proportions as self-identified conservatives.
June 6, 2012:
If the official results were correct, there would have been little or no change in demographic support % between 2010 and 2012. This strongly contradicts the un-adjusted exit polling data outlined above, particularly as it concerns women, union household voters, and independents.50
There are massive problems with any such scenario. For one, non-supporters of Walker who were against the recall would have just stayed home, not gone to the polls to vote for Scott Walker, which is contradicted by the information previously presented. So, for the official result to be correct, very unusual voter behavior that runs contrary to both common sense and experience would have had to occur on multiple levels, and yet somehow been insulated from every other race occurring that day.
For the demographic support data to remain virtually the same, earlier polling showing varying degrees of decline in support would have had to not only make substantial errors in every single case, but the errors would have had to be totally different for each demographic and all be against Walker to achieve the varying degrees of deviation from the official result. Furthermore, there was no concomitant deviation in favor of Walker among his core support base, meaning that the only deviations occurred among opposing demographics. This is simply not how polls work, and just one more example of the preposterousness of the official result.
As far as I have been able to find, the Walker election was the only one of the day that drastically differed from unadjusted exit polling. In fact, anomalous results to such a high degree are exceedingly rare in any election in modern history, and as far as I've found, have only ever benefited Republicans in the past two decades, although I welcome any information to the contrary.
June 7, 2012:
In the days following the election, the media begins asking the loaded question What Was the Problem With the Wisconsin Exit Polls?, as in the cited Atlantic article. The article implies that exit polls are not meant to show election outcomes, just demographics - which I suppose is like saying that cameras aren't meant to show objects, events, or spatial relationships, just to give a sense of color. It further claims that "early" exit polling was responsible for the deviation, although the pattern persisted well past the time polls closed - i.e., when the statements of actual voters were involved in calculating the results rather than the mechanistic process of tabulation.
Also, as noted above, the demographics of the unadjusted exit polling showed Scott Walker losing several points among key constituencies with high turnout, while the adjusted polling based on official results showed virtually no change in either the support or turnout of these constituencies from 2010. So the Atlantic's reasoning would fail even on its own terms, let alone the fact that it's entirely based on the logical fallacy known as begging the question: No mention is made of even the possibility that the official result was wrong and the exit polling right - rather, the claim represented by the official result is treated as definitively correct, and exit polling treated as ipso facto flawed.
The "problems" with the exit polls are deduced entirely on that basis - but no such problems are found with the same polling assumptions applied to other races in the same election. Pundits would rather declare Walker a statistically unique phenomenon heretofore unknown to science than even address the possibility that exit polling standards vindicated both in other elections and other races in this one were also correct in Walker's case. To date, I have not seen a single argument in favor of the legitimacy of the official result that did not involve such circular reasoning, holding the exit polls faulty because they don't agree with the very result they call into question.
Let me be clear in the interest of thoroughness that there were opinion polls indicating a substantial Walker victory, but there were equally credible polls indicating a much closer if not tied election, and not one single non-partisan poll matched or exceeded his official margin of victory. Even the most pro-Walker credible opinion polls were just barely within the margin of error for the official result. The fact of the matter is, the only reason opinion polls that were near to the official result are being considered more credible than the others is that the official result agrees with them - i.e., the same circular reasoning identified above. If it had not agreed with them, they would simply be forgotten as irrelevant outliers, which they may indeed be in context. So, unfortunately, the opinion polling does not offer us any particular insight.
More fundamentally, I find it surreal that I have to remind people of this, but an official election result under current election procedure (unless hand-counting occurs) is not an established fact, just a claim made by a small group of political authorities and people who program voting and counting machines. Exit polls are likewise a claim made by a different kind of authority - statistical scientists and actual voters, rather than merely "likely" voters as identified in opinion polling. Given the facts identified above, which claim is most credible in this case?
In summary, a radical right-wing anti-worker nutjob in a heavily unionized Blue state with a documented pattern of breaking the law and subverting the democratic process went into a high-turnout election with 50-50 exit polling and substantial projected losses among key demographics - groups whose projected turnout was substantially higher than in 2010. He came out of that election with a 6.8-point margin of victory and adjusted polling results based on the official returns indicating no significant change in support among demographics that had earlier shown both a major collapse in support for him and a significant increase in turnout. Occam's Razor does not permit accepting the official result.
A marginal Walker victory would have been credible and consistent with the facts, as would a marginal Barrett victory, but the official result is beyond credulity and overwhelmingly suggests that the people of Wisconsin were simply not permitted the opportunity to remove Scott Walker from office. This conclusion is consistent with his documented behavior, with other profound irregularities in related elections crucial to Walker's agenda over the past year and a half, and the various numbers and statistics cited throughout this timeline.
If this result, attended by this sequence of events, had occurred in an election in Nigeria, or Bangladesh, or some People's Republic of Shitbrickistan, it would have been laughed out of the room among Western audiences along with anyone who defended it or pooh-poohed the context of documented criminality and glaring factual inconsistencies surrounding it. Furthermore, it would be questioned if not condemned throughout the media if a liberal Democrat had won under such circumstances, which is partly why that never happens - the other reason most likely being that liberal Democrats simply don't do the kind of things necessary to produce such results. And frankly, anyone who claims that the level of documented inconsistency identified above is insufficient to even demand a closer look is either not playing with a full deck or is not part of any reality-based discussion.
The virtually total lack of examination of this election, even here where such reality-based questions are supposed to be pursued, is a disgrace and a surrender without purpose or consolation. I am deeply ashamed of the progressive blogosphere. Thanks to the superficiality, timidity, and ever-willingness to be demoralized and accept any excuse for defeat of our side's commentariat (even online), very likely we will never have answers to these questions because the physical ballots cast in the Walker recall are by this point in a landfill somewhere or recycled into napkins. But even recognizing that, the self-inflicted damage does not have to be total: We can demand of ourselves that we always and quickly note and pursue significant deviations from exit polling in final results, especially when they occur within such a pervasive climate of overtly criminal, undemocratic behavior and outrageous irregularities. Let's at least try to be as ballsy in defending democracy as Republicans are in destroying it.
Now, my work here on this subject is done - I feel like I've met my obligations as an American outside of Wisconsin on the matter, so the rest is up to the people of the state. I'll continue to note these facts and ask questions whenever the subject arises, but there is not much more than that I can do in practical terms. I urge others in the community who comment on the recall to stop treating the result as an established fact, and more importantly, stop extrapolating things about Wisconsin public opinion or American public opinion in general from it. It is neither justified nor rational to deduce anything about the voting public from a result that appears drastically compromised, statistically anomalous, and just generally ridiculous (I tried to give a sense of this in an earlier snark diary, It's Official: Scott Walker Wins Boston Marathon in 5 Minutes). For Wisconsinites, make your own decisions about how to proceed: Don't let media narrative and the irrational etiquette of professional pundits make it for you.
Notes on sources:
Be aware that unless a source contains specific information about the date and/or time of an event, I have to rely on the date/time of the article's posting to know when the events in question happened. I've made significant efforts to avoid such reliance, but in some cases it is the best information available. Furthermore, the times listed on articles may not be in Central time - they may either be in the time zone of the source, or else the settings of the website may list times according to the location of the viewer.
If you intend to pursue these matters further for activist or academic purposes, you may want to download, print, or otherwise copy the source material, as there is significant database turnover in articles as time goes on, causing dead links and removing some material behind pay walls.