MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Elections Commission issued an order Thursday to recount more than 800,000 ballots cast in two heavily liberal counties at President Donald Trump’s request.
The order, required by law after Trump paid $3 million for the recount, was agreed to after rancorous debate for more than five hours Wednesday night that foreshadows the partisan battle ahead.
“It’s just remarkable the six of us in a civilized fashion can’t agree to this stuff,” Democratic commissioner Mark Thomsen said hours into the debate. The commission is split 3-3 between Democrats and Republicans.
The recounts in Milwaukee and Dane counties, where Joe Biden outpolled Trump by a more than 2-to-1 margin, will begin Friday and must be completed by Dec. 1. Milwaukee County officials said they plan to finish the recount by Wednesday. Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell has not provided an estimated completion date.
Biden leads statewide by 20,608 votes, but Trump’s campaign has cited irregularities in the counties.
“We understand the eyes of the world will be on these Wisconsin counties over the next few weeks,” Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s top elections official, said Thursday. “We look forward to again demonstrating the strength, security, integrity and transparency of our election systems in Wisconsin.”
The commission argued over changes to its manual that provides guidance to local elections officials over how to conduct recounts. Ultimately, they decided not to reference the manual in the order, but they did update some parts to reflect accommodations for the coronavirus pandemic.
The commissioners deadlocked on making changes to the manual that Democrats and elections commission staff said would bring the guidance into line with current state law. Republicans balked, saying the guidelines should not be changed after Trump filed for the recount.
Their inability to agree leaves in place guidance that says absentee ballot applications must be approved as part of the recount, even though commission staff said that’s not required under the law.
Republican commissioners Dean Knudson and Bob Spindell questioned whether election observers would be treated fairly by Democratic county clerks in Milwaukee and Madison. At one point, Knudson even appeared to question whether absentee ballots requested through the elections commission’s state website were invalid because of how the requests are recorded.
“I hope we haven’t created a system at WEC that entices people to request a ballot that actually isn’t in keeping with the law,” he said.
Knudson, a former state lawmaker, has been on the commission since 2017 and like many office holders in Wisconsin encouraged voters to sign up for absentee ballots on the website. In August, he tweeted a link to the site along with the exhortation to “request absentee ballot now.”
Milwaukee County is the state’s largest, home to the city of Milwaukee, and black people make up about 27% of the population, more than any other county. Dane County is home to the liberal capital city of Madison and the flagship University of Wisconsin campus.