MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - Officials in Wisconsin's largest county expect to finish on Thursday a review of the local vote in the state Supreme Court race, an election widely seen as a referendum on Republican efforts to curb public sector unions.
That will set the stage for either candidate to demand a recount.
Contests for a 10-year term on the high court are normally low-profile affairs. But this year, it took on added significance as the first statewide race since the legislature approved a proposal by Governor Scott Walker to restrict public workers union rights.
Moreover, several legal challenges to the law are sure to eventually reach the state top court. It currently has a 4-3 conservative majority that includes David Prosser, one of the candidates in this month's election.
Milwaukee County is the last of the state's 72 counties to complete its canvass of last week's vote and submit the results to the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections.
Under state law, all canvasses -- a routine part of the post-election process designed to uncover discrepancies before the vote is finalized -- must be completed by Friday at 5 p.m.
"We're still waiting," Mike Haas, a GAB staff attorney, told Reuters. "There's been a little wrinkle but they're hoping to submit today."
Once the GAB posts Milwaukee's totals, the two candidates in the hotly contested race have three business days to request a recount. Assuming Milwaukee files on Thursday, that means a deadline of 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Immediately following the April 5 vote, when incumbent Prosser, a former Republican assembly leader, and the challenger, assistant state attorney JoAnne Kloppenburg, appeared separated by just a few hundred votes, a recount seemed inevitable. Now, it's less clear.
The discovery late last week of thousands of misplaced votes in Republican-leaning Waukesha County propelled Prosser ahead by more 7,300 votes -- a lead no one expects him to lose as a result of the verification effort in Milwaukee, where officials have told the GAB they have found no significant discrepancies so far, according to Haas.
In Wisconsin, recounts are not automatic -- no matter how close or controversial the result. They are also only free to the candidate requesting them if the candidates are separated by fewer than 0.5 percent of the total votes cast in the race.
Prosser's current lead seems to be beyond that threshold. So Kloppenburg would have to pay for a portion of the recount -- at least $5 a ward.
Kloppenburg's campaign director, Melissa Mulliken, refuses to say whether they are preparing to request and finance a statewide recount. But experts think it's unlikely.
"I'm guessing that they're not going to demand a recount," said Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who served as a Democrat state legislator in the 1970s and 1980s.
"Once all the results are certified it's going to be clear that the gap is so large that it's unlikely a recount will flip the election. So my guess is Justice Prosser has been re-elected."
(Reporting by James B. Kelleher and Jeff Mayers)