The Wisconsin Elections Commission has ordered a recount of more than 800,000 ballots cast in two heavily liberal counties at US President Donald Trump’s request.
The order, required by law after Mr Trump paid 3 million dollars for the recount, was agreed to after rancorous debate for more than five hours.
The commission is split 3-3 between Democrats and Republicans. Hours into the debate, Democratic commissioner Mark Thomsen said: “It’s just remarkable the six of us in a civilised fashion can’t agree to this stuff.”
The recounts in Milwaukee and Dane counties, where Joe Biden outpolled Mr Trump by a more than 2-to-1 margin, will begin on Friday and must be done by December 1.
Mr Biden won state-wide by 20,608 votes. Mr Trump’s campaign has cited “irregularities” in the counties, although no evidence of illegal activity has been presented.
Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s top elections official, said: “We understand the eyes of the world will be on these Wisconsin counties over the next few weeks. We remain committed to providing information about the process and assisting our county clerks by providing facts on the mechanics of a recount and status updates.”
The commission argued over changes to its manual that provides guidance to local elections officials over how to conduct recounts. Ultimately, they decided not to reference the manual in the order, but they did update some parts to reflect accommodations for the coronavirus pandemic.
The commissioners are deadlocked on making changes to the manual that Democrats and elections commission staff said would bring the guidance into line with current state law. Republicans said the guidelines should not be changed after Mr Trump filed for the recount.
Their inability to agree leaves in place guidance that says absentee ballot applications must be approved as part of the recount, even though commission staff said that is not required under the law.
Democratic commissioners said they were certain the recount was heading to court even though Mr Trump’s claims were without merit.
Board chairwoman Ann Jacobs, a Democrat, said Mr Trump’s allegation that election clerks posted thousands of absentee ballots to voters who had not requested them was “absurd”, “factually bizarre” and a “vague, paranoid conspiracy”.
Republican commissioners Dean Knudson and Bob Spindell questioned whether election observers would be treated fairly by Democratic county clerks in Milwaukee and Madison. At one point, Mr Knudson even appeared to question whether absentee ballots requested through the elections commission’s state website were invalid because of how the requests are recorded.
“I hope we haven’t created a system at WEC that entices people to request a ballot that actually isn’t in keeping with the law,” he said.
Mr Knudson has been on the commission since 2017 and like many office holders in Wisconsin encouraged voters to sign up for absentee ballots on the website. In August, he tweeted a link to the site and urged people to “request absentee ballot now”.
Democrats dismissed Mr Knudson’s concerns as outlandish, noting that the system has been in place unchallenged for years.
Mr Thomsen said Mr Trump was challenging the validity of the election only because he lost, but he had no problem with Wisconsin’s election rules in 2016 when he won by fewer than 23,000 votes.