It’s been no secret the past couple years that Republicans are frustrated with the rulings of the Government Accountability Board, the non-partisan agency that handles election and ethics issues.
The GAB has been in the middle of a lot of sticky issues since its creation in 2008, handling the recalls, questions over voter registration and photo I.D. The GAB consists of a staff that handles the day-to-day work, and a six-member board made up of retired judges appointed by the Governor.
The GAB was created with bipartisan support to take the place of the old Elections Board that was filled with partisans appointed by partisans designed to make partisan decisions.
Lawmakers complained about that system too, like in the 2006 gubernatorial election when the Elections Board stacked with partisans appointed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle ruled that Republican Mark Green, who was challenging Doyle, couldn’t use any money from his Congressional campaign fund because it was a federal fund.
At the time of its creation, the concern among lawmakers was that the GAB would get unlimited resources to conduct investigations into ethics violations, and that the GAB would be able to conduct “witchhunts” snooping around the campaigns of sitting legislators. Keep in mind, this was just a few years after the Caucus Scandal, in which leaders in both parties were convicted of misconduct in office for using state employees to do campaign work. At that time, the Elections Board did nothing about the abuse, proving it’s uselessness.
Regarding “witchhunts” when a complaint is submitted to the GAB, the investigation remains confidential unless the GAB decides rules were broken. I have yet to hear any politician attack the GAB for abuse in this fashion.
The new complaint from Republicans is the GAB is partisan, even though the retired judges on the panel are chosen for their independent nature. When then-Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald complained about the partisan judges on the GAB all being appointed by Gov. Doyle I asked him if he would feel better when their terms ran out and Gov. Walker would get to appoint his own hand-selected judges. He said no.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has also been quoted saying the judges don’t have enough information to go against the recommendations of the staff, saying the staff is partisan.
I covered the actions of the GAB extensively while they handled the unprecedented onslaught of the recalls over the last couple years, and I saw staff work extremely long hours to complete their work and put their work in front of the judges. The judges then carefully reviewed the recommendations and made decisions, sometimes overruling or changing staff recommendations.
But here’s a short list of the rulings the GAB has made over the years that have irritated lawmakers:
In 2008, Republicans Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen sued the GAB demanding they cross-reference their voter registry with a federal database just a month before the presidential election. Van Hollen said federal law required the GAB to dump names that didn’t match, but the GAB said there wasn’t time because the databases would not recognize partial matches like Steve and Steven, and would unnecessarily disenfranchise thousands of voters. Van Hollen eventually dumped the lawsuit.
During the recalls, lawyers for the Democrats and Republicans tried to get signatures collected by the other side thrown out for various reasons, both ridiculous and legitimate. The GAB did invalidate a number of signatures that were gathered fraudulently, but all the recalls did go forward.
Gov. Walker’s campaign sued the GAB to force them to look for obviously fake or duplicate names. The GAB said state law put that burden on Gov. Walker. A judge ruled in favor of Gov. Walker. The GAB only found a handful of obviously fake or duplicate names.
Republicans were angry with the GAB when the agency ruled the second set of senate recalls would use the old district maps, despite the fact redistricting had already changed the population Senators were supposed to represent. The GAB said state law clearly stated the new maps were not in effect for electoral purposes until the fall.
Republicans also battled the GAB over what types of I.D. would be valid at the polls under the photo I.D. law. The GAB planned to allow more kinds of identification, especially for college students. A lawsuit has put photo I.D. on hold and it has not been valid for any election to date.
GAB officials often refer to themselves as the referees, saying they expect to be yelled at by both sides when ruling on a controversial political issue. But most good-government groups around the nation point to the GAB as the model for non-partisan elections administrators.