A controversial recount that included a decision by a canvassing board to take no action on 110 missing ballots finished with Pat Bomhack moving ahead of Ernie Wittwer Thursday to win the Democratic primary for the 17th Senate District, according to unofficial results reported to the state Government Accountability Board.

Bomhack erased Wittwer’s unofficial seven-vote victory on Aug. 12 by picking up a net difference of 40 votes in the recount and winning the primary, 3,837 to 3,804. The GAB posted the unofficial final results on its website Friday morning. The results after the April 12 election had Wittwer winning, 3,847 to 3,840. 

Bomhack, a 32-year-old Spring Green Democrat, won the recount by picking up a difference of 30 votes in Green County, five in Grant County, three in Richland County, two in Sauk County and one in Iowa County. Wittwer picked up one vote in Lafayette County.

Both candidates knew the results of the recount Thursday night.

The 33-vote victory meant that the missing ballots in Monroe didn’t determine the winner, Bomhack said. The recount in Monroe, which didn’t include tabulating the 110 missing ballots, netted Bomhack 28 votes. If they had included all the votes as they stood after the Aug. 12 election, Bomhack would have won by three votes, he added.

“I’m glad the mistake in Monroe did not decide the election,” Bomhack said.

Wittwer said he is contemplating taking legal action to challenge the outcome of the recount because “there were irregularities all over the place” leading up to the recount. He added he will make his decision after talking to his attorney and advisors. Wittwer also has five days to challenge the results of the recount with the GAB.

“The Monroe votes I didn’t think cost me the election in and of itself,” said Wittwer, 66, of Hillpoint. “I’m befuddled by the irregularities, Monroe was just the biggest. It has undermined my confidence in the electoral process.”

Besides the lost ballots in Monroe, Wittwer said there was an open ballot bag found in Juneau County and absentee ballots were mishandled in other parts of the district prior to the recount.

“I don’t know what I’ll do but there are so many different threads to pursue here that you could make a lifetime career out it if you wanted to,” he said.

The GAB left open the possibility for the courts to overturn the canvassers’ decision. It said on its website, “When there are discrepancies or a lack of a definitive result, the law allows the courts to review the decisions of the board of canvassers and, if appropriate, fashion a remedy to resolve any discrepancy.”

The Green County canvassing board learned Monday that ballots were missing as it prepared to recount the results of the primary. It decided Wednesday not to take action.

Monroe City Clerk Carol Stamm said what most likely happened was that a poll worker put a stack of marked ballots next to a stack of unused ballots destined for destruction at the courthouse the next day. It’s possible both stacks were put in a box and destroyed.

But an investigation by the board also turned up the possibility that an unidentified man, who was spotted at the polling place after the polls closed, took the ballots. Monroe Police Chief Fred Kelley said his department is investigating whether a crime took place.

Wittwer, who is a retired manager with the state Department of Transportation, said the state needs to provide the same voting equipment for every polling place in the state and do a better job of training the workers at those polling places.

For instance, Wittwer said Green is not among the few counties that use voting machines with optical ballot scanners that can count a ballot and save an image of the ballot. He added that they would have been helpful in Monroe’s case because it would have provided a legal backup to cover for the lost ballots.

“We need one way to do things in this state,” Wittwer said.

Bomhack lauded all the county clerks and canvassers for doing an excellent job during the recount.

“At the same time, what happened in Monroe has brought attention for the need for greater protections to safeguard the vote,” he said.

Wittwer also suggested simplifying the rules to make them easier to understand and follow.

“I’m not bitter, I’m disappointed,” Wittwer said. “Over the past nine months I’ve met some wonderful people who put their faith in me. I feel like I’ve let them down.”

If the GAB certifies Bomhack as the winner in the recount and Wittwer doesn’t challenge it, Bomhack will take on Rep. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, in the general election on Nov. 4.

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.