She Helped Administer the Wisconsin Recount. Here’s What It Was Like

wisconsin recount
Megan Kapp, the Deputy County Clerk for Waushara County, a rural, 24,000-resident county in Wisconsin, poses in her office on December 16, 2016. Photo by Stefan Davis

Megan Kapp’s job title is one you might recognize, but never think twice about.

She’s the Deputy County Clerk for Waushara County, a rural, 24,000-resident county in Wisconsin. You’re probably familiar with her office, because in most U.S. counties it issues marriage licenses and a vast array of other licenses and permits.

Most of the time, the job sounds pretty boring. Half of her duties are related to accounts payable for the county. Her office also does the prep work for county board meetings and records the meeting agenda.

The day I was in the office, I overheard Kapp answering the phone for someone who needed a timber-cutting permit.

But every four years, the job comes with a boost of excitement: Kapp’s office administers elections for the county.

The 2016 presidential election brought Wisconsin into the spotlight when Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s campaign petitioned for a recount in the state, one of three that ultimately handed Republican Donald Trump the presidency.

How the Recount Affected This Government Employee

“When I found out there was going to be a recount, I was actually kind of excited,” Kapp said, with a bit of laughter. “I think I was probably the only one!”

Even though Kapp understood the recount was not expected to change the results of the presidential race, she was still excited to play a small role in the historic event.

“It’s something that has never happened in Wisconsin before,” she said. “It’s a pretty rare event to have a full statewide presidential recount, anyway, so it’s just a neat thing to be a part of.

“I really enjoy the elections part of my job. There’s so much to learn, there’s so much involved in it … Every day I learn something new.”

Unlike the County Clerk, Kapp is not an elected official. She was hired into the office in 2015 after a year in the county’s zoning department. She doesn’t see an elected position in her future. 

She actually holds bachelor’s degrees in music and education, as well as an MBA, but her family’s location in central Wisconsin limits her options in an already-crowded market for teaching jobs. She’s always been one of those confounding folks who enjoy math, so the administrative work is a great fit for her.

She’s one of just three employees in the County Clerk’s office. Most of the time, that’s plenty, but a presidential election puts a strain on them.

The office administers all state, local and county elections as well, but with the higher voter turnout for the general election, the workload is much more intense.

Kapp cited Waushara County’s turnout at 68% — and 69% for the state of Wisconsin — for the 2016 general election. Compare that with a national voter turnout of just 55%.

“We still issue marriage licenses and dog licenses, and we still have to pay all of the bills, even when there’s an election going on,” she explained. “So the workload definitely increases,” but the staff size doesn’t.

On top of their day-to-day duties, the office preps election materials for 26 cities, towns and villages in Waushara County. Kapp was responsible for creating the county’s ballots from scratch. It all starts with an Excel spreadsheet!

Absentee tracking was also a big part of her job, a task she said was added in 2015 after Wisconsin passed its controversial voter ID requirements.

What It’s Like to Work as an Elections Official During the Recount

wisconsin recount

Megan Kapp, the Deputy County Clerk for Waushara County, works in her office on December 16, 2016. Photo by Stefan Davis

When the recount started, four weeks after the polls had closed, Kapp’s day-to-day duties took a back seat.

For employees in the County Clerk’s office, the tight deadline for the recount meant early mornings, late nights and coming in on a Saturday.

Kapp was responsible for tabulating votes as they were counted, as well as guiding the volunteers and workers counting ballots. For the latter, she was able to call on her teacher training and experience.

“We ran into a few discrepancies here and there, very minor,” she said of the recount’s underwhelming results. “Overall, I think we had maybe 10 votes change (out of) 12,000-plus votes that we counted in the county.”

And she says Waushara had it easy. “I don’t know how some other counties handled it, quite frankly.”

Think about Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County, with a population about 40 times the size; or Dane, at about 20 times.

The time that went into the recount, Kapp said, has “kind of a snowball effect. It affects a lot more than you think.”

The County Clerk’s office is required to be open at all times during business hours. During the week of the recount, two of its employees were tied up, which left the third to staff the office with no help and no breaks.

It also meant that third employee couldn’t attend to her regular duties as budget/finance supervisor. The office, Kapp said, was effectively shut down for a week — even though its employees were working overtime.

Extra hours at work for Kapp means fewer hours at home with her family — her husband and four-year-old daughter.

But they were understanding.

“My family was really good about knowing that this is the only time this is going to happen … being able to say, you know what, this week, this is how it’s going to be. They were all right with it.”

She did point out, though, the extra work that fell on government employees likely strained other families who weren’t as flexible. She reminded me it’s Christmas shopping season, and many parents would likely have spent that Saturday shopping instead of counting votes.

Late nights would also encroach on a family’s typical weekday schedule. Kapp missed her daughter’s swimming lesson one night, which she usually attends every Monday.

The Financial Cost of the Wisconsin Recount

The recount is over now, but Kapp’s job isn’t.

“I’m in the process of adding up people’s time, calculating their pay and their mileage and processing the actual payments … I have to physically go through and cut the checks for all those people.”

Because Jill Stein’s campaign petitioned for the recount, it foots the bill — with a deposit upfront.

“Because there’s never been a statewide presidential recount,” Kapp explained, “(the state) really had no clue what it was going to cost.”

You might have heard the cost of the recount was originally estimated at $1.1 million. Kapp said that was based on a non-presidential statewide recount a few years back, which wasn’t a strong comparison.

To get a more accurate estimate for the Stein camp’s deposit, each County Clerk had to try to predict the costs for their county. Those were added up, and the final estimated cost was $3.5 million — the number you probably heard most often in the news.

The campaign paid that upfront.

However, it has to pay the full actual cost of the recount, even if it’s more than the estimate. (If the cost is less, it’ll get a refund.)

“We’re in the process right now of figuring out what our actual cost will be, and we have to submit that to the state for reimbursement,” Kapp said. The actual cost of the recount will be known once every county has done this.

“It’s quite a process,” Kapp said in a humble understatement.

Anything that is directly related to the recount, the Stein campaign is responsible for. None of the cost will be paid by taxpayer dollars.

Waushara County paid those who worked up to 10-hour days to count the votes, including a board of canvassers, tabulators and those counting the ballots — though some actually turned down the pay and opted to volunteer their time.

Stein’s campaign will even cover Kapp’s pay for the hours she spent managing the recount and those she’s spending now processing payments and cutting checks for those workers.

“There’s a lot of costs that go into to it that people don’t realize.”

Your Turn: Does seeing the employees behind it change the way you think about election news?

Writer’s note: In the name of full disclosure, Megan Kapp is my sister, and our mom is very proud to read this article.

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).

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