Wisconsin GOP Stumbles in Effort to Rig Recalls

State Senator Mary Lazich (WI-28)Republican efforts to inoculate themselves against recall hit a snag Monday when a moderate Republican announced his opposition to a plan that would permit recalls to happen in newly-drawn partisan districts.

Senator Mary Lazich introduced two bills on Friday that opponents say will rig recall elections in favor of Republicans. Democrats plan to start collecting signatures on November 15 to recall Governor Scott Walker, as well as state Senators who voted in favor of collective bargaining limits. Lazich's bills are the latest in a series of moves by Wisconsin Republicans to change the recall election rules in their favor.

Redistricting and Recalls

One of the Lazich bills would have required that recalls be conducted in the new legislative boundaries re-drawn in this year's partisan redistricting process. The law enacting the redistricting map says the new boundaries are not to take effect until November 2012, and the state elections board had determined the recall elections would take place in the old districts.

Lazich's bill would overturn the election board's determination and make the new maps effective next week, making a recall more difficult by putting GOP Senators in the much safer districts they created for themselves earlier this year. It would also put the maps into effect before two legal challenges to the new boundaries were resolved.

According to Jay Heck of Common Cause Wisconsin, holding recall elections along the new boundaries would be "terribly confusing," with "voters unsure about whether they are eligible to vote in their district, which could deter voters from turning out."

It also would have put some voters into the position of recalling a Senator they never elected in the first place, and preventing other voters from recalling the Senator that they put in office.

"I'm not going to vote for [Lazich's bill] because the people who sent me to Madison are the ones who should decide whether I ought to be recalled or not," said Senator Dale Schultz (R-Richmond Center). "I'm not interested in further adding confusion by changing the rules."

With Republicans holding only a one-vote Senate majority, Schultz' vote against Lazich's bill means that it will not pass (assuming all Democrats oppose it). Senate Republicans held a 19-14 majority until recall elections this summer removed two Republicans from office, narrowing the GOP majority to 17-16. In March, Schultz voted against Governor Walker's controversial Act 10 limiting collective bargaining rights, but under the Senate makeup at the time, his opposition was not enough to keep the bill from becoming law.

For some, the fact that extreme Republican bills can no longer be steamrolled through the legislature is proof that last summer's recall elections were effective.

Notary Requirement for Recall Petitions

Another Lazich proposal introduced Friday and originally scheduled for a vote Tuesday (but delayed until Wednesday) would add an additional layer of process by requiring that each page of recall petitions be notarized. Organizers need over 540,000 signatures to recall Walker, and with up to ten signatures per page, more than 54,000 pages will need notarization. Lazich said the bill would bring "a little more accountability" for recall signature gatherers, but Common Cause's Heck says the bill "assumes Wisconsin citizens are dishonest" and is intended "to result in fewer recall signatures."

Scot Ross of the liberal One Wisconsin Now says of the last-minute bill that "if Mary Lazich thought recall signature notarization was such an issue, she had the last 20 years of her undistinguished career as a state legislator to do something about it," pointing out that Lazich did not introduce bills to change recall election rules when Republicans threatened to recall former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle or Democratic U.S. Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold.

Additionally, the notary bill may be unconstitutional. Article XIII, Section 12 of the Wisconsin Constitution deals with recalls, and sub-section (7) states:

Laws may be enacted to facilitate its operation but no law shall be enacted to hamper, restrict or impair the right of recall.

Other Recall Rigging

These bills are part of a larger GOP effort to control the way elections and recalls are conducted.

Lazich, a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), also introduced the ALEC-inspired voter ID legislation that will make it significantly more difficult for students, people of color, and the elderly to vote in Wisconsin.

In late September, Republican lawmakers announced they would give Governor Walker authority to reverse two elections policies developed by the non-partisan Government Accountability Board.

One policy would have allowed voters to access a form online, print their recall petition, sign it, then send it to the group coordinating recalls. It would have made it easier for those collecting recall petitions because the groups would not have to gather the signatures face-to-face and door-to-door.

The other would have permitted universities to put stickers on student ID cards that could then be used for voting. Wisconsin's new voter ID law permits the use of student IDs for voting, but only if the ID includes certain information not currently on any of the student IDs issued in the state. The sticker would have allowed student IDs to meet the necessary criteria, and made it easier for students to participate in recall votes.

The Republican-led Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, led by ALEC member Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) and Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon), told the Board these matters should not have been adopted as "policies," but instead as administrative rules, which require the approval of Governor Walker. Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) told Republicans that, by giving Walker veto power over the rules that govern his recall, "you have given the governor control of the chicken coop."

The elections board backed down in response to pressure from Republicans, leading to accusations the non-partisan board had become politicized.

Even without these efforts, Governor Walker and state Republicans already have an advantage in the recall elections. A loophole in campaign law allows for unlimited funding and spending during the recall signature-gathering period. These additional efforts by the GOP to change election rules in their favor suggest that Walker and his party are taking the recall threat seriously.