Can the public trust the political process if politicians themselves don’t trust ethics and election regulators? That fundamental question has become pertinent in Wisconsin. On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Senate voted, in effect, to fire Michael Haas and Brian Bell, respectively the administrators of the state election and ethics commissions. It was a strict party-line vote, with the Republican majority concluding that the individuals running the commissions had been tainted by partisanship and bad practices. “You need the ethics and election commissions to be trusted by all sides that have to deal with it,” says Mike Mikalson, chief of staff for GOP Sen. Stephen Nass. But Democrats complained that the move amounted to vendetta politics. Wisconsin Republicans have repeatedly attacked ethics and election officials whose actions they disliked.
“For a state that used to be held up as a paragon of good government, it’s a sad and significant step for legislators to remove staff in this way,” says Barry Burden, director of the elections research center at the University of Wisconsin. “It is micromanaging what should be independent agencies.”
The story isn’t over.
Members of the commission — themselves appointees of the governor and legislators — have claimed that the Senate has overstepped its bounds by refusing to confirm staff. There could be legal action fighting the move. In the meantime, a state Senate committee recently authorized an investigation that could lead to criminal charges or other sanctions against Bell or Haas.