By: Dan Sinclair
In 2008, in the wake of a legislative caucus scandal and partisan rulings by the state’s Elections Board, Wisconsin announced the formation of a new non-partisan ethics and elections agency. The Government Accountability Board (GAB), formed from the merger of the Elections Board and Wisconsin’s Ethics Board, was intended to provide an independent body capable of investigating criminal and civil violations of the state’s ethics and election laws free from the partisan and financial pitfalls that wracked its predecessors.
On Tuesday, Republican lawmakers held a hearing on a bill to scrap the GAB and replace it with a system similar to the one it replaced. Board members of the resulting Ethics and Elections Commissions would be appointed by state legislative leaders from both parties and the governor. The gubernatorial appointees to the Elections board would be former local election clerks. The proposed bill would also reverse the changes to the funding rules that were considered key to the GAB when it was formed.
The bill, authored by Representative Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, comes on the heels of a series of controversies embroiling the GAB. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, speaking to Mike Gousha of WISN-12 Milwaukee, called the Board a “failed experiment” and attributed its failings to an overly-broad mandate:
We empowered the G.A.B. to be the judicial branch, where they have the ability to be judge and jury. The executive branch, where they have the ability to really do the investigations. And the legislative branch where they get the opportunity to make policy. That’s too much authority in one entity.
The goal of the Government Accountability Board–to “take politics and partisanship out of the process” as Vos puts it–is now seen by many as unattainable. The “John Doe” investigation into alleged improper coordination between conservative groups and Governor Scott Walker’s recall election campaigns faced substantial criticism for partisan leanings, criticism that Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty president Rick Esenberg says undermines the Board’s premise.
But supporters of the GAB say it remains a model for national ethics and election oversight. They lay the blame for the Board’s failings on an overwhelming workload and insufficient staffing. The GAB’s executive director Kevin Kennedy told WISN-12 that efforts to dismantle the agency are “simply retaliation for one decision that was made unanimously by the board members,” referring to the John Doe investigation. Rick Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California-Irvine School of Law, said the proposal “looks to be a deliberate attempt to doom effective enforcement of Wisconsin election laws.”
Concerns have been raised over how any change to election oversight could affect the administration of elections in the state of Wisconsin, particularly the 2016 presidential election. The proposed plan sets June 30, 2016 as a target date to put the new Commissions in place. Kennedy worries this timetable could lead to disruptions, while Vos said the timetable would allow for a smooth transition by giving time to hire new staff.
Assembly Republicans said they would push for a vote on the GAB bill next week (a vote is currently scheduled for October 20). Voting on bills reforming Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws and establishing online voter registration is set for the same time. Democrats attacked the campaign finance bill, saying it would open the state to a massive influx of outside influence.
Passage of the online voter registration bill would make Wisconsin the 26th state to offer that service. Supporters say the technology is long overdue in the state, but concerns remain over its viability for certain groups. Some Democrats who co-sponsored the bill last week pulled their support in recent days, citing worries over how changes to voter registration would affect those unable to use the online method. Others pressed for changes allowing prospective voters to use proof of residence documents other than a state driver’s license. Under the proposed bill, online voting registration would be administered primarily by the GAB, the same agency lawmakers are seeking to dissolve. If passed, the changes are not expected to be in place before the 2016 election cycle.