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Two Life Lessons for Election Administrators in the Wisconsin GAB Waukesha Report

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[Image courtesy of Waukesha Clerk]

Last week, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB) released the report of an independent investigation into the conduct of Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus on Election Night of the Supreme Court election in April 2011. Nickolaus found herself in the national spotlight after some Waukesha returns that had not been initially reported came to light and changed the outcome of the hotly-contested race between incumbent David Prosser and challenger Joanna Kloppenburg.

The upshot of the report is that Nickolaus' actions did not rise to the level of criminal offenses - but there are two powerful lessons in the report that should make it required reading for anyone in the field of election administration. Both lessons are simple but bear repeating given what happened in the aftermath.

Lesson #1: Slow down, be careful and double-check.

The report found that Nickolaus' failure to report returns from the City of Brookfield was not an effort to manipulate the results but rather a failure to follow proper procedure. Specifically, the investigator found that -

the most likely explanation for her misreporting of unofficial results is that [Nickolaus] uploaded a blank template into a reporting database, rather than a template that included actual vote totals, for the City of Brookfield. Clerk Nickolaus gave both the blank and completed templates the same file name and saved them in the same file location on the computer.

That's a very simple - and very common - mistake; templates save us time and effort but occasionally get us into trouble. [Part of electionline.org lore is the internship cover letter that came in professing deep interest in our work but included a sentence that concluded "my skills and experience make me well-suited to work for any [expletive] bank." The letter was memorable - but the candidate didn't get the internship.]

Quite simply, in this case it appears an election official under the gun and in a hurry on Election Night uploaded and saved a returns template with all zeros. There likely isn't any way to avoid the fatigue and time pressure of Election Night - but having another (several) set(s) of eyes can reduce the chance of this kind of mistake happening to you.

Lesson #2: If something goes wrong, ask for help - and come clean right away.

The report also notes that much of the controversy about the Brookfield returns resulted from Nickolaus' failure to apprise GAB of the situation. Moreover, the report questions her judgment in announcing the existence of the problem at a press conference before notifying GAB. From page 27 of the report:

Ms. Nickolaus stated after the Board of Canvass finished reviewing Brookfield's results, she informed [a colleague] a press conference would be necessary. Ms. Nickolaus stated she attempted to contaĆ°t the G.A.B. to inform officials there about the press conference. Telephone records reflect that Ms. Nickolaus made two calls to the G.A.B. The first was made at 4:15 p.m. and the second at 4:32 p.m. Ms. Nickolaus stated she attempted to contact G.A.B. Director and General Counsel Kevin Kennedy, as well as Elections Division Administrator Nat Robinson. Ms. Nickolaus stated neither Mr. Kennedy nor Mr. Robinson was available, and she left messages for them.

Nickolaus did speak with a technician at GAB and mentioned "totals for Waukesha would be changing by 14,000 votes and that she would be holding a press conference to address the issue." When asked what happened, she told him "You will find out when everybody else does." Of course, the press conference set off a media and political firestorm - much of which likely could have been avoided had Nickolaus enlisted the aid of GAB staff in diagnosing and disclosing the mistake. Indeed, the report finds that

Had Ms. Nickolaus contacted [GAB] prior to the press conference, she would have been able to publicly state that she immediately notified the G.A.B. when she first suspected a problem and maintained contact with the G.A.B. throughout the canvass process. This would have added a layer of transparency to the process. Although it may not have eliminated later claims of a conspiracy, it would have bolstered public confidence in the process. (p. 40)

Again, the lesson is clear. Mistakes happen, whether or not they are avoidable. When they do, it is vitally important for anyone - not just an election official - to let the appropriate people know what has transpired and work with them to address the problem.

Both of these lessons seem obvious, but the facts of this situation suggest that they are still worth learning. This case is a cautionary tale for anyone in this day and age who operates in a high-profile job like election administration.

And if you think think this is purely a Waukesha problem - you're simply not being honest with yourself.

4 Comments


  • There is (or was when I was a journalism student) a public relations protocol for "unexpected events:" maximum disclosure with minimum delay. Part of that protocol is, when you don't know the answer to a question, admit your lack of knowledge, commit to getting an answer, and following through with providing the answer. On an internal staff level, I've tried to impress on my colleagues that I don't like surprises, which seldom are good when related to elections, and I encourage them to confess early and often. It's much easier to address problems earlier than later and easier to forgive known problems than discovered ones.

  • Have you talked with Kathy Nickolaus about the story of that night? She gave compelling remarks on that evening at a roundtable session at this year's Election Center conference. There are some fascinating, but not part-of-the-media-storyline, take-away messages in "her side of the story". This is not solely a PR story. It's also compelling illustration of What Can Go Wrong technically when, for reasons including the state of our voting equipment certification process, election officials are using duct tape and baling wire to together multiple vendors' systems that don't talk to each other.

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