Democracy Denied in Wisconsin

by Phil Anderson

Democracy is being denied once again in Wisconsin. Governor Walker has refused to perform his constitutional duty to call special elections for two vacant legislative seats. 
Republicans thumbing their noses at democratic process is standard procedure in the Walker era. This is only one of many examples. Following the takeover of Walker and the radical Republicans, election districts have been severely gerrymandered. Non-existent voter fraud has spawned voter ID laws, attacks on same day registration, and other efforts to suppress voter turnout. Ethics and election oversight agencies have reorganized, weakened, and politicized. Public hearing and open meeting laws have been ignored or manipulated. Weakening campaign finance laws has resulted in huge amounts of out-of-state money flowing into Wisconsin. This has even affected the “non-partisan” Supreme Court elections. Preemption laws that restrict the actions of counties and cities have gutted local democracy. 

So it is not surprising that Walker has refused to call special elections even though the law is clear and the historical precedents support a prompt holding of special elections. Article IV, Section 14 of the Wisconsin Constitution and a relevant state statute read, respectively:     

“The governor shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies as may occur in either house of the Legislature,” .

“Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring before the 2nd Tuesday in May in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat shall be filled as promptly as possible by special election.”  (emphasis added) 

In legal contexts the word “shall” is an imperative command. It is a must do, mandatory duty required to be performed. Nothing about “shall” is optional or conditional. 
In December 2017, Walker appointed two Republican state legislators to positions in  agencies. Senator Frank Lasee (Senate District 1) and Rep. Keith Ripp (Assembly District 42) resigned effective on Dec. 29, 2017. Walker said he would not call special elections for either of these legislative seats. They would remain vacant until the regularly scheduled fall elections on Nov. 6, 2018. 

Walker has claimed the law does not require him to call special elections because the vacancy occurred in the year prior to an election year. He is apparently grasping at semantic straws to justify his egregious, illegal action. There is nothing ambiguous about the intent of these laws. The precedents on special elections indicate no confusion by former Governors.

WisContext, an online service of the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension, Wisconsin Public Radio, and Public Television, have done several in-depth reports on the history of special elections. Their review of state election records found that between 1971 and February 2018, Wisconsin has held 62 special elections for state Assembly seats, 40 for the state Senate and three for the U.S. House of Representatives for a total of 105 special elections over nearly five decades. They say, “review of 105 special elections since 1971, as well as 45 legislative vacancies not filled through special elections over the same time period, indicates that it’s pretty normal for governors to call them swiftly and without much fuss. But Gov. Scott Walker is challenging that norm with a recent decision.” 

The WisContext analysis on special elections also says“...that swiftly calling them is a well-established gubernatorial norm.” They say in 26 cases governors called a special election “before or on the same day the incumbent’s resignation formally became effective. In the rest of the cases analyzed, governors waited an average of 17 days after the triggering event to call special elections.” Over the last 47 years no governor left a seat unoccupied for the length of time Walker is demanding. 

Prior to 2018, Walker’s own record of calling special elections is consistent with prompt action. According to WisContext, Walker called four legislative special elections on or before the date of the incumbent’s effective resignation, and in 12 other cases within an average of 23 days. 
Why the extraordinary delay this time? Obviously partisan politics is at play. Republicans are very worried about loosing special elections. Backlash to Republican policies in Wisconsin and nationally is growing. Democratic wins in elections in strongly Republican states and President Trump’s low approval ratings are evidence that the GOP is in trouble. In Wisconsin Patty Schachtner, a Democrat, handily won the January 16 special election for the District 10 Senate seat. As Jennifer Shilling, Wisconsin Senate minority leader, said, “Governor Walker is running scared and playing politics with people’s right to be represented.”

Walker has argued that delaying these elections saves the state money. Special elections do indeed cost money but they are an essential, normal process of representative government. This is not the discretionary spending to be haggled over.  And the monies a special election might cost pale in comparison to billions being spent on handouts like the Foxconn deal. Citing cost is certainly a hypocritical, lame excuse.

Republicans at the national level are promoting undemocratic actions as well as disrespect of the  democratic process. They are pushing gerrymandering, purged voter rolls, restricted same-day registration, reduced early voting, and bogus voter fraud laws. They pushed the Citizens United court decision that unleashed huge amount of dark money into our elections. They are the party that egregiously denied President Obama a Supreme Court appointment. 

We do not need governors (or presidents) acting like dictators. They must abide by constitutions and laws. This egregious disregard for democracy must be stopped. People must enforce democratic rule in the voting booth. Thankfully there are signs that this is occurring. People are rejecting the mean spirited, reactionary, undemocratic Republican agenda in special elections across the country. We must continue the trend in November. But this will be a tough, uphill battle and everyone must do their part. Get active, open you wallet, join with others, and throw the bums out!