A nonpartisan attorney for the Legislature and one of the state’s foremost experts on campaign finance law are disputing a contention by the state’s elections agency that political parties don’t have to publicly disclose contributions they receive from corporations. It is the latest incident in which conclusions of the state Government Accountability Board have been disputed. Frustrated with the agency, Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature have approved dissolving the agency this year and replacing it with two new commissions. “This is just another clear example of why the Government Accountability Board needs to be replaced,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said Friday.
Wisconsin: Senate GOP reaches deal on campaign finance, elections oversight | Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Making an apparent breakthrough, Republicans in the state Senate plan to modify legislation Friday that would overhaul campaign finance laws and the agency that runs elections. That sets the stage for the measures to get to GOP Gov. Scott Walker by next week. One Republican lawmaker who has been briefed on the changes said one would require a new ethics commission to include two former judges. Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), on Tuesday announced the plans to meet Friday, but declined to say what changes to the legislation could be in store. She said details may not be available until Thursday, a day before the Senate is to vote. “I can say that we believe we have come up with changes that address the concerns of the caucus and get us to versions of both bills that will have the votes to pass,” Tanck said by email.
A bill that has passed the Assembly and could be considered by the state Senate as early as Tuesday would make it much harder for citizens to learn the background of who is financing candidates’ campaigns and codify a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision allowing candidates to work closely with issue groups that don’t have to disclose where they get their money. The Republican legislation would also allow unions and corporations to give money to political parties and campaign committees controlled by legislative leaders. And wealthy donors would be free to give as much as they wanted to those entities, which could then pass them on to candidates. As passed by the Assembly, the bill includes a provision championed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) that would end a requirement that donors disclose where they work, making it harder for the public to know when companies are investing heavily in certain politicians.
The future of a bill to dismantle the Government Accountability Board is unclear after the state Senate canceled a session Tuesday where they were likely going to vote on it. Senate Republicans held a caucus for most of the day on the GAB and campaign finance bills, both of which have already been passed by the Assembly but are hung up in the Senate. The bills the Assembly passed last week to disband the GAB and replace it with a partisan elections board and ethics commission have not moved in the Senate. Conservative groups are lobbying the offices of four GOP senators who have expressed concerns about the bill.
Wisconsin: Off the campaign trail, Scott Walker is changing the way Wisconsin holds elections | The Washington Post
In the weeks since Gov. Scott Walker (R) abandoned his bid for a presidency, the Republicans who help him run Wisconsin have been on a tear. Thanks to creative post-2010 redistricting and a strong 2014 election win, Republicans control enough of the legislature in Madison to push through legislation that had been stymied by dissent — or negative media attention. Yesterday, the minority Democrats boycotted a vote on some of that legislation, a bill that would end some campaign contribution limits and allow candidates to coordinate with “issue” organizations. The caps on individual donations to state legislative and constitutional offices would be doubled; unlimited funds would be allowed to flow to campaign committees, even if the money came from the candidates themselves.Democrats, who have fought in vain to slow down conservative legislation in the past, were shocked at the speed of this bill. “It was always moving, but it kind of hit an oil slick this month,” state Rep. Mandela Barnes said in an interview. “It sped up and got out of control.”
Editorials: Dismantling the Government Accountability Board weakens government | Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
It appears the state Assembly will take up this week the bill aimed at wreaking Republican revenge on the Government Accountability Board, replacing it with a system that doesn’t work particularly well on the federal level and hasn’t worked well in Wisconsin in the past. This attack on the nonpartisan watchdog agency that supervises state elections and conducts investigations into ethics violations reeks of payback partisanship. Under it, and other measures, legislators would like to set themselves up as the sole arbiters of transparency and accountability. That’s not how our system of government is supposed to work. It is similar to the underhanded attempt to gut the state’s open records law on the Fourth of July weekend by this same crew of legislators led by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. And it deserves the same kind of fate: an overwhelming demand from angry citizens to kill the bill.
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.
Wisconsin: Republicans propose splitting Government Accountability Board into elections, ethics commissions | Wisconsin State Journal
Calling Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Board a “failed experiment,” Republican legislative leaders on Wednesday proposed splitting it into two commissions guided by partisans. They also called for a sweeping revision of state campaign finance laws, one of the board’s areas of oversight. The announcements signal an ambitious effort by GOP lawmakers to change how Wisconsin’s elections — and elected officials — are overseen. Supporters said the GAB has overstepped its authority, and the new boards would be more publicly accountable. But critics of the bill said it would return Wisconsin to the model that predated the GAB, in which election and ethics laws proved difficult to enforce under partisan oversight.
Wisconsin: Government Accountability Board head asks lawmakers to delay overhaul of elections agency | Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
The head of the state’s elections board has urged legislative leaders to slow down their plans to overhaul the agency, but top GOP lawmakers say they will unveil their restructuring plans next week. Gerald Nichol, chairman of the Government Accountability Board, in a letter to lawmakers raised concerns about restructuring the board 13 months before the high-turnout presidential election. His request to slow down fell on deaf ears. On Wednesday, aides to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said they reached a deal on the matter. They declined to provide details, saying they would make their plans public next week. The leaders discussed the plan briefly with GOP Gov. Scott Walker. Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email Walker “looks forward to working with them to find a replacement that is fair, transparent, and accountable to Wisconsinites.”
The state elections board’s employees have personal political views but they don’t make any decisions, the board’s director said Tuesday as he tries to stave off Republican lawmakers’ plans to restructure the agency. Conservatives’ calls to overhaul the Government Accountability Board have grown louder following a newspaper story Thursday detailing a former staff attorney’s emails. The messages offered encouragement to an investigator looking into whether Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside conservative groups. The GAB consists of six retired judges appointed by the governor and their employees.
Wisconsin: Status quo likely won’t last at Government Accountability Board, putting elections, ethics oversight in flux | Wisconsin State Journal
Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board was created in the wake of scandal, meant to be an independent overseer of elected officials and those who influence them. Eight years later — after playing controversial roles in the 2012 recall elections and an investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign — the board has made enemies of many of the elected officials it was founded to regulate. Now, the board is on course for a sweeping overhaul — or perhaps for extinction. Some fear the coming changes could leave Wisconsin with weakened oversight of those in power at the Capitol. They also could mean the state will have untested elections oversight in 2016, the first presidential election year in which a photo ID requirement for voting is expected to be in place. But critics of the GAB say change is needed because its purported impartiality is a farce. Gov. Scott Walker said last month that the board should be replaced. Walker was speaking just after the state Supreme Court halted an investigation into coordination between Walker’s campaign and conservative groups — an investigation in which the GAB played a key role. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has signaled the Assembly will take up a bill this fall to overhaul or replace the board, which oversees elections, campaign finance, lobbying and ethics.
Wisconsin: GOP hopeful Scott Walker calls for dismantling of state elections board | Chicago Tribune
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Monday called for the dismantling of an independent state agency that oversees elections and that authorized an investigation into his 2012 recall campaign. Walker, who launched his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination last week, told reporters following a bill signing ceremony in Oshkosh that he wanted to scrap the Government Accountability Board and replace it with “something completely new that is truly accountable to the people of the state of Wisconsin.” Walker also called for an investigation into the board’s activities. He did not say who should lead the investigation. Walker’s comments come just four days after the state Supreme Court halted a board-approved investigation into whether conservative groups illegally coordinated with Walker’s 2012 recall campaign, saying the groups broke no laws. Republican state lawmakers have been talking for months about reshaping the board, and the Supreme Court’s ruling has only bolstered the calls for change.
Key Assembly Republicans renewed their call Friday for overhauling the state’s elections and ethics board after The Wall Street Journal reported the agency had been in touch with the Internal Revenue Service as it investigated conservative groups. “Nothing should be more important than free speech and it’s outrageous that there’s a coordinated effort to undermine this basic constitutional right,” said a joint statement issued by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson). “Now that the state budget is complete, it’s time to double down on finalizing the necessary reforms for the (Government Accountability Board) so the bill can be ready for consideration this fall. Those reforms will include a means to change the way the GAB operates. The agency leadership needs to be accountable to the GAB board and the board needs to be accountable to the Legislature and the citizens of Wisconsin.”
Republicans in Wisconsin have been out to get the Government Accountability Board for a while now — and some of them believe a recent audit of the state’s unique ethics and elections agency may provide an opening. Let’s hope not. The non-partisan GAB, run by retired judges, remains the best model for supervising partisan elections and ethical behavior. The idea of handing those tasks back to the very partisans being supervised, as was the case in the past, is ridiculous. That said, the report by the Legislative Audit Bureau should be taken seriously by the GAB and its longtime executive Kevin Kennedy. The report, released last week, found that officials sometimes waited years to review whether felons had voted and did not promptly audit electronic voting equipment. The board also failed to impose late fees on candidates and political groups that hadn’t file timely campaign finance reports. Those lapses should be corrected. But here’s something else that should be corrected — the GAB’s budget. It’s been squeezed in each of the last three budgets.
No one in Wisconsin has been more forceful in demanding changes to the state’s Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying, than Robin Vos. The Republican Assembly Speaker has deemed the GAB “dysfunctional” and called its director and general counsel, Kevin Kennedy, an “embarrassment” who “needs to be gone.” His critique has been long on vitriol but short on specifics. Vos likes that the board, which the Legislature created in 2007, is led by six former judges appointed by the governor to staggered six-year terms. But he feels these judges are being manipulated by Kennedy and other staff into serving as “a rubber stamp.” “The GAB judges are not in charge, and that has to change,” Vos said recently. Kennedy, noting in an interview that the board has at times overruled staff, is not aware of any board support for legislative intervention. He considers Vos’ comments “an insult to the board members.” The judges seem inclined to agree.
It’s election season, and we should not be surprised that politicians and political groups moan about the state’s election watchdog. But few are as explicit as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who says the Government Accountability Board should be overhauled and its director ousted. Voters should know where the candidates for governor stand on this issue. There are plenty of ways to improve Wisconsin’s election system, but undermining an independent, nonpartisan overseer is not one of them. GAB staff has been called irresponsible — and unaccountable. But the GAB is working as intended by the Legislature that created it with near-unanimous support in 2007. Many of the same legislators are now beating up on their own creation because it has become inconvenient. While the GAB is insulated from partisan politics and has more power than the State Elections Board it replaced, it is not completely removed from political control. The Legislature controls its budget. The board itself is appointed by the governor, with five of the six members selected by Gov. Scott Walker. If the board thought that the GAB director was incompetent or biased, a simple majority vote could dismiss him. In contrast, removing the director simply because a prominent politician voices displeasure removes any semblance of independence from the position. A quick refresher about the GAB might help clarify things. Although anger is directed at the director, it is the board that makes decisions. Board members are former judges unaffiliated with a political party. A panel of appeals court judges creates a pool of candidates. The governor then nominates individuals from this pool, who then must get two-thirds support from the state Senate. The process guarantees that board members are approved on a bipartisan basis. It’s also helpful to consider some of the complaints launched against the GAB. They reveal a misunderstanding of how the agency is supposed to function.
A divided U.S. Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin’s voter ID law late Thursday, issuing a terse yet dramatic one-page ruling less than four weeks before the Nov. 4 election. The 6-3 vote means in all likelihood the requirement to show ID at the polls will not be in effect for the election. But Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said he would seek ways to reinstate the law within the month. Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans approved the law in 2011, but it was quickly blocked by a series of court decisions in four lawsuits. It was reinstated by a federal appeals court in recent weeks, but Thursday’s ruling again put the law on hold. “That is great news, wonderful news,” Milwaukee NAACP chapter President James Hall said. “I think it’s gratifying that the court has seen fit to block the implementation of this law that would most certainly create chaos and confusion in this election.”
Wisconsin: Election officials ask judge to toss suit over ballot design | Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
State election officials asked a judge Tuesday to throw out a lawsuit over the design of the Nov. 4 ballots, saying the campaigns of two Republican lawmakers did not follow proper procedures in bringing their court challenge. Even if the case is allowed to proceed, the election officials argued, the judge can consider changing the ballots in just four places — Racine, Walworth, Columbia and Jefferson counties. Those who brought the suit can’t argue over the ballots in the state’s 68 other counties because they either don’t represent them or the ballots in those counties don’t include the features that are the subject of their suit, they said. The filing came a day before Waukesha County Circuit Judge James Kieffer is to hold a hearing to consider whether to order election officials to make changes to the ballots six weeks before the election. The campaigns of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) last week filed their suit contending ballots designed by the state Government Accountability Board are confusing. Ballots’ formats vary by county, but if successful, the suit could result in ballots in some areas being redesigned and reprinted.
creating confusion and may even open the door to the very type of behavior Republican lawmakers were trying to prevent. Policy makers, attorneys and voter ID experts were struggling Friday with how to interpret a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling from a day earlier, which mandated a change to the law in order to make it constitutional. The court said the state can’t require applicants for state-issued IDs to present government documents that cost money to obtain, such as a copy of a birth certificate. The court left it to the Division of Motor Vehicles to come up with a solution. “We don’t know how that’s going to work,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Thursday shortly after the ruling. When asked whether obtaining photo IDs without having to present government-issued documents verifying a person’s identity could result in fraud, Vos said: “It’s got a potential for it.”
Wisconsin: Legislature cannot fix voter ID law before November election, leader says | Wisconsin State Journal
The leader of the state Senate said Wednesday that the Legislature will not go back into session to fix Wisconsin’s voter ID law, which was struck down Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in an interview that although he supports the planned appeal of Adelman’s decision, Tuesday’s rejection of the law left little room for lawmakers to act. “I don’t see it (Legislature) coming back,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not going to be resolved for the November election.” Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, echoed that sentiment, saying that calling lawmakers back to Madison would be “an exercise in futility.” Any new law would have to be approved by Adelman, who not only struck down the voter ID law but also blocked the state from enacting any similar requirement, said John Ulin, an attorney who represented civil-rights groups and individuals challenging the law. “This pretty much ends the idea that we could come in and do something through a legislative effort that would make sense at this point,” Fitzgerald said.
Wisconsin: Assembly Republicans push through recall, photo ID, absentee voting measures | Associated Press
Assembly Republicans used the final regular session day of the year Thursday to push their proposals that would make it more difficult to remove public officials from office, require photo identification at the polls and limit hours of in-person absentee voting. Democrats, who opposed all the measures but didn’t have the votes to stop them, argued against the changes as an infringement on voter rights and attempt to quash Democratic supporters. Republican leaders defended the proposals, saying they would protect the integrity of the election process by allowing recalls only when those targeted have committed a serious crime, combat fraud by requiring photo identification and install a more uniform system for in-person absentee voting hours statewide. The Assembly isn’t the last stop for any of the hot-button elections issues. All would also have to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and the change to the recall law for statewide officials would be put to a statewide vote. The soonest that could happen is 2015. The recall measure passed 53-39 with all Democrats opposed.
Wisconsin: GOP leader vows to reinstate voter ID as Assembly passes elections bill | Wisconsin State Journal
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos vowed Wednesday that he will do everything possible to quickly reinstate the requirement that Wisconsin voters present a photo identification in time for the 2014 general election. “It’s my intention to get that bill through the Legislature … and be signed by the governor sometime this fall,” said Vos, R-Rochester. Vos made that promise just before the GOP-led Assembly approved a bipartisan elections-law bill that stripped a provision to resurrect voter ID. After that and other controversial elements were taken out of Assembly Bill 225 in committee Monday, Democrats signed on, and the measure passed the full Assembly on a voice vote Wednesday with a smattering of “no” votes.
Wisconsin: Lawmakers negotiating to double donor limit, allow online registration | Journal Sentinel
Democrats and Republicans in the Assembly are working together on a bill that would double the amount donors can give politicians and allow voters to register online. It’s a surprise collaboration that emerged just days after Democrats reacted with outrage at a public hearing to an earlier version of the bill from Republicans. A new draft of the measure made public Friday night shows the GOP was willing to drop some elements that Democrats consider onerous to accomplish something both parties want — raising contribution limits. … The original plan to overhaul election laws, by Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), included elements that would make it harder to recall local officials, tweak the state’s stalled voter ID law and put new restrictions on when voters can cast ballots in clerks’ offices in the weeks before an election.
A sweeping Republican bill designed to reinstate voter photo identification requirements in Wisconsin would force poor people to humiliate themselves at the polls and scale back absentee voting opportunities, opponents warned during a public hearing on the proposal Tuesday. Rep. Jeff Stone’s bill would make a host of changes to state election law. A key provision would allow voters to opt out of showing photo IDs at the polls if they swear before the chief inspector and sign an affidavit saying they’re poor and can’t obtain identification without paying a fee; have a religious objection to being photographed; or can’t obtain the proper documents needed to acquire photo identification. Stone, R-Greendale, told the Assembly election committee during Tuesday’s hearing that the provisions are designed to overcome a court decision nullifying voter ID requirements in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin: Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wants quick action on elections bill – State elections board wants go-slow approach | Journal Sentinel
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos plans to proceed quickly with a wide-ranging election reform bill despite objections from the state elections board. “Our main message to the committee today is please slow down,” said Michael Haas, elections director for the Government Accountability Board. “The legislation addresses some significant policy areas of election and campaign finance…that would benefit from more vetting.” But Vos, a Rochester Republican, said quick passage is necessary to enact election safeguards and properly train poll workers before the next election in spring 2014. “We adjourn on June 30, so it is my intention to get a bill passed by June 30,” Vos said, referring to the end of the Assembly’s floor period. He said he is happy to discuss components of the bill in a bipartisan fashion but stressed the need for additional safeguards in election law.
Weekend absentee voting would end and voter identification requirements would return under a sweeping new election law package partially inspired by issues in Racine. The bill from Greendale Republican Rep. Jeff Stone covers a wide swath of election-related territory, including numerous procedural changes for how electoral recounts are run. Those changes are partially the product of last summer’s recall recount in Racine, where tensions ran high and allegations of election fraud repeatedly surfaced, according to Stone’s office. Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said his office helped shape the final bill, bringing together what he called “a bunch of different ideas regarding elections to make them hopefully easier and more fair.” The result is the wide-ranging proposal planned for committee debate Tuesday.
Wisconsin: Elections bill would make it harder to recall municipal and school officials | Journal Sentinel
Municipal and school officials could be recalled from office only if they have been charged with a crime or ethics violation, under a sweeping elections bill quickly moving through the state Assembly. Under other provisions of the bill by Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), new limits would be enacted on when people can vote in clerks’ offices before an election, ballots could more easily be thrown out and restrictions would be eased on when lobbyists can give campaign donations to legislators and the governor. The bill wouldn’t affect state and county elected officials, who can be recalled for any reason under the Wisconsin constitution. As a result, the proposal would not have prevented the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker last year or the attempted recall of Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament after the pension scandal in 2002.
A Republican lawmaker is proposing numerous changes to the state’s voting, election and campaign finance laws, including reinstating the requirement that voters show a photo ID to cast a ballot and shortening the time for in-person absentee voting. The voter ID requirement, passed in 2011, has been tied up in the courts and currently is not in effect. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has repeatedly called on the Legislature to reinstate photo ID, which surveys have shown is supported by a majority of Wisconsin residents. Opponents of photo ID have argued that many voters — including the poor, elderly and disabled — are disenfranchised because they lack driver’s licenses or the ability to get photo identification. Two Dane County judges have found the provision to be an unconstitutional impairment of the right to vote. The state is appealing those rulings.
Gov. Scott Walker set off a firestorm last month when he suggested Wisconsin should do away with same day registration. He says eliminating the on-site procedure would alleviate the burden on poll workers. “It’s difficult for them to handle the kind of volume of folks who come in at the last minute. It would be much better if registration was done in advance of Election Day,” Walker says. Incoming Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos supports the governor’s idea of requiring voters to register ahead of time. Vos says lines would be shorter at the polls. He also claimed in a television broadcast a few days ago, that same day registration sometimes results in fraud.
Requiring every Wisconsin voter to show photo ID at the polls is going to be a top priority for the Republican-controlled legislature in the next session, according to incoming Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). “I do think that having photo ID is something that is broadly supported by the public,” Vos said in an interview on Sunday with WISN’s Mike Gousha. “It’s something that I really hope we’re going to have in place by the next general election.”