Re-creating Elections Board wouldn’t provide real reform
When—or if—Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature discuss retooling the Government Accountability Board, which administers elections and ethics laws, a model exists for what should not replace it: the now-abolished Elections Board.
For generations of Capitol reporters, having to cover the Elections Board was like watching paint dry. Here’s why:
--Because it was the most dysfunctional panel in state government, the Elections Board rarely made clear yes-or-no decisions.
--Its seven political partisans, and the eighth member appointed by the chief Supreme Court justice, spent hours preening over petty matters only to frequently deadlock, 4-4.
--The number of board members varied, depending on whether the Libertarian Party was entitled to a ninth board seat. The Libertarian Party got that seat for a few years because its candidate for governor got 10 percent of the vote in 2002.
--High turnover on the board meant a decision made one year could be reversed years later. Records show that 23 different people served on the Elections Board between 1999 and 2007. The GAB has had only 10 members in more than five years.
--One board member spent years unsuccessfully trying to get the board’s chief lawyer fired.
Those factors, and the campaign-on-state-time ethics scandal that led to criminal convictions for several legislative leaders, prompted Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature to replace the separate elections and ethics boards with the Government Accountability agency, and its part-time governing board, in 2007.
Created in 1974, Elections Board members were appointed by the state Republican and Democratic parties, the four party leaders in the Senate and Assembly, the governor and the chief Supreme Court justice.
The law that created the GAB said only former judges can serve on the board, subject to Senate confirmation. One more fine-print condition was added: only ex-judges who had won an election qualify for GAB.
But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told reporters last week that part-time GAB board members have not acted independently, have favored Democrats, and too quickly accept staff recommendations. Fitzgerald said it might be better to return to an Elections Board made up of political partisans.
Assembly Speaker-elect Robin Vos, who will preside over a Republican-controlled Assembly, said he would consider changes proposed by Fitzgerald.
The GAB played a critical role in the two most turbulent years in Wisconsin politics. It walked in a swamp that would have drowned the Elections Board.
For example, the GAB had to oversee the only recount of a Supreme Court election in Wisconsin history, which was decided by 7,000 votes out of a total of 1.5 million. Then, it had to verify that there were enough valid signatures to force a record 15 recall elections—for 13 state senators, the governor and lieutenant governor. It had to work with local officials to implement new boundary lines for every seat in the Legislature. And it got caught—and remains—in the legal crossfire caused by Walker and Republican legislators who voted to require the showing of a photo ID to vote.
How did the GAB’s six retired judges, who include former Republican state Rep. David Deininger, anger Republican lawmakers?
In summer 2011, the GAB set separate dates for recall elections for Republican and Democratic senators. The GAB’s decision to hold recalls first for Republican senators, and recalls for Democrats almost a month later, angered Republicans.
Three GOP senators were thrown out of office by those recalls. But Nov. 6 elections put Republicans back in control of the Senate by an 18-15 margin.
The GAB, however, has been an equal-opportunity pinata over the last two years.
When it said it was going to verify each of the more than 1 million names on petitions to recall Walker, Democratic Party leaders protested.
Sensing they had momentum, Democrats said the GAB should have only verified the minimal number of signatures required—540,208—and quickly ordered the recall vote. Instead, the June 5 recall election for Walker was more than four months after petitions were submitted.
The ultimate irony, if Republican officials re-create a partisan board to administer election laws, could be this: Appeals of decisions made by any new board will end up in court, where they will be decided by—surprise—other judges.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email email@example.com.