Wisconsin's nonpartisan elections board in final days


Associated Press

June 27, 2016

 

MADISON Whether Wisconsin's unique nonpartisan elections board was a failed experiment or was so successful that it became a political target, this much is true: It goes away this week.

Targeted for elimination by Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans who control the Legislature, the Government Accountability Board officially disbands as of Thursday. It was the only nonpartisan elections and oversight board in the country.

In its place are two new commissions made up of partisan appointees that will regulate Wisconsin's elections, ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws.

Those new commissions look a lot like the partisan panels that were widely disparaged as ineffective before they were replaced by the GAB eight years ago.

The push to dismantle the board came after it approved an investigation into Walker and conservative groups that the Wisconsin Supreme Court eventually deemed to be unconstitutional.

Critics of the GAB argued that the board was unfair and overzealous, pointing to the Walker probe as evidence.

"I think people want a fresh start," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who voted for creating the GAB but became one of its loudest critics.

Part of that fresh start includes replacing the GAB's executive director. At the same time the board of former judges is dissolved, executive director Kevin Kennedy is retiring. He has been working on Wisconsin elections for 37 years and has been in charge of them since 1983.

As to what spelled the downfall of the board, Kennedy puts it this way: "The people in power did not like being held to account."

The board's record should be celebrated, not disparaged, Kennedy said in an interview.

"To me I think that the GAB left a mark of what can be a very positive way," Kennedy said. "I say that by looking at what the agency accomplished in eight short years and its ability to navigate in some tumultuous times."

The board was created with broad bipartisan support in response to the so-called caucus scandal in the Capitol that resulted in five former legislators being convicted of campaigning illegally.

Fitzgerald now says its creation was a "knee-jerk" response to the scandal, even though a bipartisan group of lawmakers discussed the idea with nonpartisan government watchdog groups for months.

"I think many of us who supported it, including myself who voted for it, thought that it would be certainly an agency that would be more independent and probably just do a better job than what was going on at the old elections and ethics board," Fitzgerald said. "But I think we could clearly see that didn't work out."

During its eight years, the board oversaw recall elections in 2011 and 2012 targeting Walker and members of the state Senate, implemented a voter registration system and campaign finance database and is now easing the transition into the state's new photo identification requirement for voting.

The old board was comprised of nonpartisan former judges. Members of the new commissions are appointed by legislative leaders and the governor, subject to approval by the state Senate.

Showing the partisan nature of the new commissions, members of the panel overseeing ethics include former Democratic Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager and former Republican Assembly Majority Leader Pat Strachota.

Kennedy said the new ethics and elections commissions should aspire to be like the board they are replacing. And his advice for the new commissions is brief: "Follow the law. Put aside partisan interests."