By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The agency overseeing Wisconsin elections will not certify results of Tuesday's state Supreme Court race until it concludes a probe into how a county clerk misplaced and then found some 14,000 votes that upended the contest.
Michael Haas, Government Accountability Board staff attorney, told Reuters on Friday the watchdog agency was looking into vote tabulation errors in Republican-leaning Waukesha County which gave the conservative incumbent a net gain of more than 7,000 votes -- a lead his union-backed challenger seems unlikely to surmount.
"We're going to do a review of the procedures and the records in Waukesha before we certify the statewide results," Haas said.
"It's not that we necessarily expect to find anything criminal. But we want to make sure the public has confidence in the results,"
Unofficial returns in the statewide race had given the challenger, JoAnne Kloppenburg, a narrow 204 vote statewide lead over David Prosser, a former Republican legislator.
But late Thursday, the top vote counter in Waukesha County, said votes she had failed to report in earlier totals resulted in a net gain of 7,582 votes for Prosser in the county.
News of the uncounted votes came as officials throughout Wisconsin were conducting county canvasses, a final review of voting records that allows the state to certify this week's bitterly contested elections.
The Supreme Court contest was widely seen as a referendum on Republican Governor Scott Walker and the controversial curbs on collective bargaining he and his allies passed in the legislature.
Walker has defended the union restrictions, which eliminate most bargaining rights for public sector workers and require them to pay more for benefits, as a needed fiscal reform to help the state close a budget gap.
Critics saw the bill, which also eliminates automatic deduction of union dues, as a Republican attack on the single biggest source of funding for the Democratic Party.
Wisconsin became a focal point of a national debate over labor relations, with massive protests at the state capital and a protracted battle in the state legislature. Several states are considering proposals similar to Wisconsin and union supporters fear the laws curbing collective bargaining could spread across the country.
If Prosser wins, Kloppenburg has the right to ask for a recount -- though based on the current tally, Wisconsin law may require she pay for it herself.
In a statement released Friday, Kloppenburg said her campaign had filed an open records requests "for all relevant documentation related to the reporting of election results in Waukesha County, as well as to the discovery and reporting of the errors announced by the County."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)