CAP TIMES: Integrity of Wisconsin's elections further in dobut as GAB comes under partisan control

December 6, 2011
Protect independence of our election watchdog

One of the best ways of ensuring the integrity of our elections is to have an independent, nonpartisan watchdog. Wisconsin already has that, in the form of the Government Accountability Board. The GAB is made up of retired judges and a nonpartisan staff charged with keeping elections clean. But now the independence of the GAB is under threat.

Last January media attention focused on the budget repair bill. But another important bill, Act 21, was passed at that time. This act effectively gives Gov. Scott Walker approval power on any new rules that agencies write as they implement legislation. The governor says this power is necessary to ensure that businesses are not overburdened with red tape. But the act also allows Walker to review the rules generated by independent agencies like the GAB.

This threat to the GAB is not theoretical. In recent months, the GAB has been tasked with implementing a controversial new voter identification law. The Legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, apparently displeased with the GAB’s decision that the new law allows voters to use college IDs with date validation stickers as well as IDs issued by technical colleges, voted on party lines to force the GAB to write a rule on these matters. This means that Walker will be given final authority in determining whether these IDs can be used. It’s a disturbing one-two punch by which the Legislature can put independent agencies under the governor’s control.

Allowing the governor to determine what rules are in place for elections is a bad idea. It is the type of clear conflict of interest that motivated the creation of the GAB in the first place. In most states partisan elected officials are responsible for elections, and the results can be disastrous. Remember the 2000 presidential election? Florida’s elected secretary of state, who oversaw the crucial recount, was also the chair of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s Florida campaign. Such conflicts of interest undermine public confidence in the integrity of the system. That is why election reformers in other states point to our GAB as a model to emulate.

Since it was created, and especially in the last year, the GAB has been attacked by partisans who disagree with its judgments. It’s important to note that these attacks have come from both sides of the political divide. The recount of the recent Supreme Court election, a series of recalls, and the passage of the voter ID law have all been controversial, illustrating a deep distrust between the parties on how our elections should be run. The potential for more recalls, including of Walker himself, means that the contentious nature of Wisconsin elections is here to stay.

Under these conditions it seems more important than ever that we have a nonpartisan and independent watchdog to maintain the integrity of elections. The GAB fills this role. People may not always like its decisions, but it’s difficult to persuasively argue that the board is acting out of partisan interest. When the Legislature votes on a party-line basis to selectively force the GAB to write rules on policies it disagrees with, it makes nonsense of the idea that the agency is independent.

In full disclosure, several of my colleagues and I have partnered with GAB on projects over the past three years. We are speaking out partly because we have seen the GAB up close and have been impressed with the professionalism of the board members and staff. In making difficult decisions they rely on the law and research, rather than trying to please whatever political party happens to be in power.

Whether or not you think it’s a good idea for the governor to have more power to monitor the rules that agencies create, extending that power to independent agencies is a step too far. Walker should recognize this and limit the application of Act 21 powers to the type of business red tape he talked about in his campaign, and not to the agency charged with protecting our elections.