Trying to make sense of the as-yet-undecided race for Wisconsin Supreme Court, I am reminded of the "Notice" Mark Twain affixed to his book Huckleberry Finn: "PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
There's no doubt the outcome of JoAnne Kloppenburg's race against incumbent Supreme Court Justice David Prosser will be interpreted as having enormous import. If Prosser wins it will be hailed as a victory for Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans; if Kloppenburg manages to close the narrow gap on uncounted votes to victory, it will be seen as a major rebuke to the GOP's agenda. This even though both candidates have disclaimed any allegiance to these positions.
But the narrowness of that gap -- and the fact that this election could go either way -- calls into question whether anyone really deserves bragging rights over how it turns out.
Kloppenburg's supporters gathered Tuesday night -- and into Wednesday morning -- at the Edgewater Hotel in Madison. Early in the evening there were perhaps 600 people, but the crowd began to thin as the night wore on. A fair number of people huddled in a corner near a TV flashing election returns; others tracked the numbers with hand-held devices. Aside from a few chants of "What's the word? Kloppenburg!" the crowd was mostly quiet.
At about 1:10 a.m. this morning, more than five hours after the polls closed, Kloppenburg took the stage to thank her supporters and tell them the race was, in the estimation of the Associated Press, "too close to call." She indicated that the matter would not soon be resolved: "Let's all get a good night's sleep and see what tomorrow brings."
One thing it is not likely to bring is closure. The gap separating the two candidates, as she spoke, was fewer than 600 votes: 733,074 to 732,489, with Prosser in the lead. Throughout the night the lead switched back and forth. At 11:08 p.m. Kloppenburg had a 35,000-vote advantage, with 84% of precincts reporting. By 11:36 p.m., that turned into a 6,500-vote deficit, with 94% of precincts reporting.
This gap steadily narrowed over the next two hours, to 1,500 votes at 11:49 to 1,200 at 11:55. Then it suddenly shot back up to a 4,700-vote advantage for Prosser before shifting again in Kloppenburg's favor. The gap was 1,800 votes at 12:04, then fell to about 1,000 at 12:32. It was hard not to be exhausted.
The totals may have shifted again since but it is unlikely to bring finality to the issue. Whichever candidate comes in second will demand a recount, and other challenges are possible.
At the Edgewater, especially as the night wore on, the slowness of the returns was a source of great befuddlement. It was said that ballots were still being counted in Eau Claire and Milwaukee. Some districts in Madison showed incomplete reporting past midnight. No one, including the campaign, had a clear sense of what was going on.
Yet there's little doubt that whatever result is finally arrived at will be deemed definitive. That hardly seems fair. But elections seldom are.