Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
The state Government Accountability Board, or GAB, oversees Wisconsin's election, campaign finance, ethics, and lobbying laws. The board consists of six nonpartisan retired judges who serve staggered six year terms. The board has been in existence since 2008, replacing a highly partisan Election Board and a fairly toothless Ethics Board. The GAB was established through an almost unanimous bipartisan vote to repair the prior dysfunctional system.
However, during the last several years, the Republican/Tea Party has made it clear that they do not want an independent, non-partisan organization in charge of elections. In fact, many in the Party have expressed outright disdain for the GAB. Last December, then-Speaker of the Assembly, Jeff Fitzgerald, suggested that the GAB should be dissolved and advocated a return to the prior system in which the party in power would be in charge of elections.
This sentiment seems to be widespread within the party. For example, a resolution in the 2012 Wisconsin Republican Party Platform states, “...the GAB must be immediately dissolved and Wisconsin return to a State Elections Board.“
An editorial was published on the website of the Republican think tank, the MacIver “Institute”. The juvenile article, called “The GAB is a Joke”, recited a litany of alleged wrongs by the GAB. Comments on the MacIver website and other far-right sites frequently call for an end to the GAB (don't worry, I got my vaccinations before visiting those sites).
There still appears to be a movement among state politicians to eliminate or defang the GAB. I am afraid that this will result in anti-GAB legislation during the next session. For example, in his November newsletter, Rep. Don Pridemore (R-Hartford) calls for a “comprehensive audit” and “overhaul” of the GAB. The new Assembly Leader, Robin Vos, frequently complains about the organization. If partisans like Pridemore and Vos start meddling with the GAB, the end result will not be good for our state.
Why such hatred of the non-partisan organization that handles state elections and ethics? Republicans did not like many of the decisions made by the GAB in the past several years. Much of this was simply based on the fact that Republicans did not like the constitutional tool of recalls and the GAB was a convenient target of their wrath. For example, the GAB made the decision that the June 2012 Senate recall elections would follow 2011 redistricting law as written and not use the new district maps. The Republican Party was upset that the GAB was planning to follow state law and have the Walker campaign be responsible for challenging petition signatures, rather than a third party or the GAB itself.
There are other, non-recall GAB actions that Republicans do not like. They are no doubt upset at active enforcement of ethics and campaign contribution laws, through which many of their contributors have been charged. They are angry that the GAB will not let party poll “watchers” intimidate voters, refusing to change guidelines requiring the watchers to stay 6 feet away from those casting ballots. Conservative politicians and radio personalities are mad that the GAB interpreted the law to allow electronic proof of residency (utility bill, tax bill, paycheck, or bank statement) when registering to vote.
Democrats certainly do not agree with every decision made by the GAB, either. For example, the Board went way beyond their legal mandate in providing a searchable database of Walker recall signatures, fueling a bizarre witch-hunt by the extreme right. They allowed self-admitted Republicans to run as fraudulent Democratic candidates in state senate and gubernatorial primaries. They found no criminal wrongdoing in the way that Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus botched two elections. GAB review of 2012 recall petitions took twice as long as state law allows, allowing Walker to collect unlimited recall campaign contributions for at least five months.
However, any non-biased referee is going to make decisions that one side or the other does not like. Just because a few calls are made that certain politicians do not agree with, we should not casually scrap a system that works. The GAB has done a good and evenhanded job in steering our state through the many recalls, elections, and ethics complaints since 2008. We need to keep that fair referee, not return to a homer Elections Board full of partisan politicians and political contributors. A non-partisan and independent GAB must remain in existence to provide real enforcement of political ethics violations and to be a final arbiter of questions on election law.
During the past two years, we have seen a wave of efforts by Republicans to tilt the political playing field in Wisconsin. Voter ID, curtailed early voting, and the proposed end of same-day registration are all designed to suppress traditionally Democratic voting blocks. If enforcement and interpretation of our election laws were also left to the party in power, the statewide political rancor of the last two years would be even more extreme.
Along with Wisconsin's Open Records and Open Meetings Laws, the existence of an independent GAB provides our state with a legal framework of open and transparent government. Ohio State Law Professor Daniel Tokaji calls our Government Accountability Board “the best American model” for an impartial election board. We should not even consider returning to a system in which decisions on how elections are conducted are made for partisan gain rather than for the good of Wisconsin.