Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies have never been enthusiastic about democracy. After grabbing power in the “Republican-wave” election of 2010—with a massive boost from heavy spending by the Koch brothers and other out-of-state donors—they redrew legislative district lines to prevent competitive elections, enacted multiple measures that made it harder for Wisconsinites to vote, and dismantled the state Government Accountability Board that used to provide nonpartisan oversight of elections and ethics issues.
But it turns out that Walker and his cronies were just getting started on a project that in recent weeks has seen embattled Wisconsin Republicans upend new commissions that were supposed to promote fair elections and responsible governance, while the governor has refused to call elections to fill legislative vacancies in districts that might be won by Democrats.
As the onetime Republican star who crashed and burned as a contender for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination prepared to deliver his annual State of the State message, Republican state senators denied the confirmations of the directors of Wisconsin’s ethics and elections commissions and Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, a close ally of the governor, said he wanted to force out employees of the commissions who had participated in investigations of Republican wrongdoing.
After Walker’s Republicans effectively voted to oust Ethics Commission administrators Brian Bell and Michael Haas and began talking about reclassifying positions at the commissions as part of a partisan purge of nonpartisan oversight agencies, Democratic state Representative Jimmy Anderson blasted his Republican colleagues for undermining “the integrity of our electoral process as well as the vital role that these watchdogs play in regulating lobbying and campaign activity. Wisconsin has a long-standing tradition as a leader in nonpartisan election administration.”
Anderson is right. But nothing the legislature has done so undermines the integrity of the electoral process as what Walker is doing personally.
The governor is deliberately denying Wisconsinites representation in the legislature by refusing to call special elections to fill open seats in the State Assembly and the State Senate.
In doing so, he is rejecting the clear intent of Wisconsin’s statutes, which declare: “Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the Assembly occurring before the 2nd Tuesday in May in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat shall be filled as promptly as possible by special election.”
So what’s up?
It may be that Walker is refusing to schedule the special elections because he is scared.The results of special elections held last Tuesday were disastrous for Walker and his Republican allies. The party lost a State Senate seat in western Wisconsin’s 10th District, as a 26-point Republican advantage in November 2016 shifted to an 11-point Democratic advantage in January 2018. And the GOP came closer than anyone expected to losing an Assembly seat in overwhelmingly Republican Washington County, where a Democrat won 43 percent of the vote. Even the governor admits the loss of the State Senate seat represents a “wake-up call.” And Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, argues that: “Governor Walker is running scared and is playing politics with people’s right to be represented in the State Capitol. He is clearly feeling the heat and scrambling to boost lack luster polls and the Republican brand, but voters are wide awake and aren’t buying it.”
It may be that Walker—who has run his campaigns with massive infusions of money from outside Wisconsin, approved such extreme gerrymandering that the federal courts have intervened, and backed restrictive voter-ID laws, assaults on early voting, same-day registration, and a host of other assaults on voting rights—really is as willing to sacrifice Wisconsin democracy on the altar of his many ambitions as his critics suggest.
Whatever his reason, the fact remains that Walker has refused to call special elections to fill the seats of former state senator Frank Lasee, of De Pere, and former state representative Keith Ripp, of Lodi, a pair of Republicans who quit the legislature in December to take posts with the governor’s administration. The governor wants to leave those seats open until after the November election—denying tens of thousands of Wisconsinites representation for almost a full year.
When the governor initially refused to call the special elections, his aides claimed that it would be a waste of money to hold them because the legislature wouldn’t be all that busy in 2018 — but the state Senate has already been quite busy, as the assaults on the elections and ethics commissions confirm.
Some of the governor’s defenders had imagined that he might find cover in an adventurous reading of statute language that suggests vacancies “after the close of the last regular floorperiod… shall be filled only if a special session or extraordinary floorperiod of the legislature is called or a veto review period is scheduled during the remainder of the term.” But legislators note that Walker has already called for a special session to enact schemes that pick on people who need food stamps. Under pressure from legislative Democrats, Walker is also saying that he wants the legislature to take major steps to address the crisis that developed on the governor’s watch at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls—as part of an ambitious agenda to reform how Wisconsin incarcerates young people.
In other words, the legislature already has a busy agenda for 2018—and it could get even busier as the year goes on.
So Walker’s excuse for leaving Wisconsinites without representation lacks even baseline credibility, and Democrats are calling him on it. “The Governor’s refusal to call special elections leaves the citizens of these districts without representation for over a year,” says state Representative Gordon Hintz, the Democratic leader in the Wisconsin Assembly. “That is unacceptable.”
Unacceptable and, even in these times of so many assaults on voting rights, stunningly anti-democratic.
(This article was updated with additional comments from Wisconsin legislators regarding the special-election issue.)