While the Democratic and Republican candidates for president wrangled over vote- counting procedures in Florida last week, public school leaders in faraway La Farge, Wis., were experiencing firsthand the havoc wreaked by premature calls, missing ballots, and hand recounts.
It started with a win for the La Farge school district, with a local radio station making the call late in the evening on Election Day. But when Superintendent Lee Bush (no relation to George W.) arrived at work the next morning, the $2.25 million bond referendum he and others in the community had spent two years fighting for was locked in a tie, 392-392.
Beyond that, nothing was certain.
District officials were familiar with outright losses. Last year, voters twice rejected a $2.8 million bond that would have paid for repairing the 100-year-old main section of the district’s single school building, constructing a new gym, and replacing two 45-year-old boilers and an equally ancient dishwashing machine.
But what did a tie vote mean? How would a recount work? What was the first step?
“We were about to get a civics lesson,” Mr. Bush said of his 315-student district, located in the hills of rural Kickapoo Valley in southwest Wisconsin.
Try, Try Again
First, district officials got in touch with the state election board, which informed them that a tie meant a loss for the referendum. So the district scheduled a recount.
In the meantime, the officials learned that at least one parent who lived outside the district had voted in the referendum, in violation of the law. When they compared the list of voters with the tax rolls, they discovered that three other nonresidents had done the same thing.
The problem, of course, was that there was no way of identifying which of the nearly 800 ballots had been cast illegally. So they decided to choose at random four ballots that would be excluded.
Saturday, Nov. 11: the date of the recount—and Mr. Bush’s birthday. District officials, with the school board lawyer on hand, began their work.
After two townships, the “yes” and “no” votes were still tied. But two municipalities and three defective ballots later, the district’s referendum was winning by a single vote. “My palms were sweaty,” Mr. Bush said.
But there was still the matter of the four nonresident votes in the township of Webster. There were three fewer ballots than the number of voters recorded at Webster’s polls, so district officials needed to pull and disqualify only one random ballot.
After shaking the bag for “what seemed like hours,” Mr. Bush recalled, a “yes” vote was drawn and discarded. Once again, they had a tie.
The last bag contained only two absentee ballots. They were placed face down on the table for everyone to see and then slowly turned over. One no, and one yes. The referendum appeared to be defeated, 389-389.
But just as a final determination in the presidential race remained elusive last week, matters appeared far from settled in La Farge.
On Wednesday, Nov. 15, district leaders received new information from state and local election officials that indicated some of the ballots they threw out during the recount might have been valid votes. At press time, a resident who had voted in the election was expected to file a petition with the circuit court in Vernon County, asking for a review of the election results in light of the new evidence.
The lesson, according to Mr. Bush? “In Florida, and in La Farge, your vote counts.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Wis. District Learning Its Own Lesson About Recounts