By: Brian Sikma
In a stunning development, Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board declared on Monday that they had failed to consider the individual challenges leveled by state senators against specific recall petitions. State law gives officeholders the prerogative to challenge errors and even outright fraud on recall petitions. When those challenges are raised, the GAB is required to consider them and if they are correct to then strike the invalid or incorrect signatures from the petition.
Ahead of the GAB meeting director Kevin Kennedy declared in a memo to the unelected board of retired judges that the agency had not and would not – unless ordered by the Board – review the specific challenges. All of this despite a state law that specifically requires the board to consider by “careful examination” challenges to the validity and accuracy of recall petitions.
According to the Kennedy memo:
“[T]he remaining challenges to individual signatures, even if upheld, would not reduce the number of valid signatures below the minimum number required in each case.”
And later in the memo:
“Board staff did not review each individual signature which was challenged in these categories because there would be no impact on the sufficiency of the petitions.”
That the Board would choose to possibly ignore the fairly clear dictates of the law on the basis of pragmatic opinion is a fairly breathtaking standard for guiding the actions of government bureaucracies. One of the statutes that should guide the GAB on the review of challenges to recall petitions is Wis. Stat. Sec. 9.10(3)(b) which reads:
“Within 31 days after the petition is offered for filing, the official with whom the petition is offered for filing shall determine by careful examination whether the petition on its face is sufficient and so state in a certificate attached to the petition.”
The Board’s opinion that signatures should not be reviewed because they would not change the fact that a recall election would take place is formulating an opinion and placing it into policy, not acting to fulfill the mandates put in place by a dually elected legislature. The pragmatism of the Board in determining which responsibilities it will fulfill and which it will ignore was on full display as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the meeting the day after the issue arose.
“The board did not rule on many individual signatures because the senators did not challenge enough of them to prevent recall elections.”
Integrity in elections matters and fulfilling the requirements of state law with respect to elections also matters. Even though the challenged signatures may not have been enough to prevent a recall election from happening, it is important for the public record to reflect just how accurate the petition circulation process was. The prerogative for putting that information in the record lies with the state senate campaigns and the challenges they raise. It is not for the GAB to just ignore legitimate challenges. They may find that the challenges are invalid or without merit, but they should not freely ignore what lawmakers have compelled them to do.
Ignoring concerns about the process has become a hallmark of the GAB’s management and oversight of the Wisconsin recall process. From refusing to allow citizens to directly alert the GAB to instances of abuse or fraud, to denying third party groups the ability to relate their findings on the process, to now ignoring the mandates of state law and the challenges of state senators, the Board has exalted its own position while assaulting the sensibilities of the voters of Wisconsin.