Will Walker Kill Government Accountability Board?
He risks having a new, untried agency run 2016 spring and fall presidential elections.
How ironic: Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislative leaders want to dismantle the state agency scheduled to oversee the counting of more than 3 million votes for President next year – just as Walker will make a historical “favorite son” bid for the White House.
Now that four Wisconsin Supreme Court justices have shut down John Doe investigations of Walker campaigns and his conservative supporters, and a Wall Street Journal editorial noted that the state’s top election officer met with the IRS official who oversaw tax probes of conservative groups, it’s open season on the Government Accountability Board (GAB).
The Republican-controlled Legislature should create “something completely new that is truly accountable to the people,” Walker said last week. “More so than an investigation, I think it’s appropriate just to get rid (of GAB) and replace it.”
When Walker calls for “truly accountable” officials, that’s Capitol-speak for partisan elected officials – Republicans and Democrats – or their designees. That could be a return to the old Elections Board the GAB replaced in 2008.
The GAB was formed from the old Elections and Ethics boards. It is governed by retired judges, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, who oversee GAB Director Kevin Kennedy and his staff. Kennedy has worked for the GAB and its predecessor state elections board since 1979 and has long experience in the field.
But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the Supreme Court ruling and Wall Street Journal editorial showed that GAB “disregarded state law and played by its own rules.” Although he has said Kennedy should be replaced, Vos last week called for an investigation of whether GAB had violated First Amendment rights.
“The citizens of Wisconsin have the right to know what laws are being broken behind closed doors at the very agency that is supposed to ensure accountability in government and elections,” Vos added.
Yes, that’s the same Speaker Vos who got Walker and Senate Republicans to initially endorse a sweeping change in Open Records Laws that would have sealed all “deliberative” documents used by legislators and governors as they make new laws. That change was quickly killed, however.
National polls say Walker is a top-tier GOP candidate for President. If he’s still at or near the top of the 16-candidate pack on April 5, he will want to win Wisconsin’s presidential primary . And, on Nov. 8, if he’s the GOP presidential nominee, he’ll want to win Wisconsin – something Republican presidential candidates have not done since 1984.
Walker will want – and need – the elections process to work in Wisconsin in 2016, including the new requirement that voters must show a photo ID to vote. The GAB oversaw two of the toughest election tests in Wisconsin history: The recount of a statewide election, which determined that Supreme Court Justice David Prosser narrowly won re-election in April 2011. And the recall election that Walker survived in 2012. Walker was the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall vote.
Here’s the question: Can a new agency, run by someone new, handpicked by Republicans who control the Capitol, oversee the 2016 elections without any disruption?
Still bound by a secrecy order that is part of the John Doe process, Kennedy cannot publicly discuss the GAB’s role in the second Doe investigation of whether Walker’s campaign and groups backing him illegally coordinated their efforts before the 2012 recall.
But, in a rare public plea for GAB to avoid the death penalty, Kennedy said everyone acknowledges that the agency can run elections: “We receive strong, positive feedback every day regarding the assistance we provide to local clerks, candidates and political committees, public officials, and voters. Almost all of that work is completely separate from the political dramas that make the headlines.”
In 2007, when the new GAB was looking for office space, it decided to rent in a private building instead of in a state office building. Why? Having the state Department of Administration as your landlord might interfere with its mission of impartiality.