Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is going to face a recall election next year.
More than 200,000 Wisconsinites have pledged to join the effort to remove the radically anti-labor governor and pro-recall groups have announced plans to begin circulating the petitions November 15. Even the governor’s aides admit that it is all but certain that the groups will collect far more than the 540,000 signatures that are required to force the governor to face a new election next spring.
And the numbers don’t look good for Walker.
Polling shows that a solid majority of Wisconsin voters disapprove of the governor’s performance, with overwhelming majorities of Democrats and independents favoring his removal. Among self-identified independent voters, a group that favored Walker by a 56-42 margin last November, the split in now 52 percent for recalling the governor to 36 percent for keeping him. Internal polling, which pits the governor against a variety of potential challengers, has him running poorly even against contenders who have never before run statewide races.
Those are nightmarishly bad numbers for a politician who got a taste of the trouble he was in last winter, when his effort to undermine collective bargaining rights for public employees, fill civil service positions with political cronies and undermine local democracy were greeted with some of the largest pro-labor demonstrations in modern American history.
So how does Walker intend to prevail?
By gaming the election process.
Specifically, Walker and his legislative allies have in recent weeks placed enormous pressure on the state Government Accountability Board—which oversees elections—to refrain from writing rules that might make the recall process easier.
The pressure tactics included consideration by the state’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules of a proposal to shift final authority over whether GAB rules are implemented to the governor.
That change would create an autocrat’s dream scenario. Strongmen and political bosses have always mused that what matters is not who casts the votes but who counts them. What has the potential to matter even more, however, is who decides how everything about an election—the petitioning, the voter registration, the voter-identification rules, the vote counting, the recounting, everything—goes down. That’s what Walker would have if were to gain control of the rule-making process regarding recalls.
“Allowing Governor Walker to veto any recall rule from the GAB that he doesn’t like, for an election that affects him personally, is the definition of an abuse of power. Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans know that they are in trouble with Wisconsin’s working, middle-class families because of their extreme agenda. But rather than let the voice of the people be heard, Republicans are trying to control the recall election rules in favor of Governor Walker,” argued Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.
Barca’s was aghast at the takeover proposal, and rightly so.
With the mere threat of a gubernatorial takeover looming, the GAB backed off on a rule change that Republicans said would have made it easier to gather recall petition signatures. The board is also reconsidering a rule change that would have made it possible for students to avoid some of the most cumbersome challenges created by the state’s new Voter ID law.
After the GAB backed down last week, the governor’s legislative allies refrained from using their control of the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules to implement the scheme that would have given the governor the final say over rules regarding the recall.
But the ugly wrangling over who gets to set election rules has put the GAB on notice. If the supposedly independent board and its staff step out of line—by acting in a nonpartisan manner to maintain clean elections, assure that it is easy to vote and generally support and sustain the democratic process—they will face legislative sanctions and a gubernatorial takeover.
The GAB was established after Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature reached a remarkable bipartisan deal that protected the GAB from meddling by politicians. That 2007 agreement was reached by Democrats such as state Representative Mark Pocan, D-Madison, the former co-chair of the legislative Joint Finance Committee, and former Assembly leader Mike Huebsch.
Pocan now worries that the Walker administration—in which Huebsch serves as Department of Administration secretary—and its legislative allies are not just ripping up the deal—they are undermining the promise of nonpartisan oversight of ethics and elections.
“With so many clouds hanging over the Walker administration, now is absolutely not the time to cede more authority to Gov. Walker. Instead of attempting to change the rules for their own benefit, legislative Republicans should be working with Democrats to ensure that our election rules continue to be governed by nonpartisan officials and that those who break the rules are held accountable for their actions,” Pocan says. “The Government Accountability Board was set up as a nonpartisan agency to regulate elections and ethics. It was never envisioned that any single politician would have the power to control its decisions.”
In February, the senior member of the Wisconsin Legislature sounded the alarm. State Senator Fred Risser warned that, with the extreme power grabs contained in a “budget repair bill” that attacked labor union rights, undermined local democracy and shifted dozens of civil service positions to political jobs he could fill with cronies, Walker was “acting as a dictator.”
With legislative Republicans threatening to turn the GAB into the governor’s political plaything—and with supposedly independent officials suddenly deciding to back away from rule changes that those Republicans did not like—Risser’s assessment seems all the more prescient. And unsettling.