Government-by-recall raises many questions

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Steven Walters
Monday, May 7, 2012

More than 2 million signatures were turned in on 15 recall petitions—nine in 2011 and six more this year—demanding the removal of elected state officials, the Government Accountability Board (GAB) estimates.

But this historical government-by-recall era has revealed six public-policy questions that future governors and legislators may—or may not—want clarified.

First, should there be no limits on the size of donations to elected state officials who are the subjects of circulating recall petitions? Now, there are no limits until the GAB finds that enough signatures have been filed and a recall election is certified.

When Republican Scott Walker and Democrat Tom Barrett ran for governor in 2010, for example, no one could donate more than $10,000 to either campaign.

But, while recall petitions circulated and before the GAB certified the June 5 recall vote on Walker, there was no limit on donations to help the governor keep his job. That allowed some rich conservatives to give Walker up to $500,000 each, helping him raise a record $25 million over a 16-month period.

The no-donation-limit law helps elected state officials—Democrats and Republicans—who are the subject of recalls remain in office, but is it too unfair to challengers? Still, would incumbent officials ever make it easier for challengers to oust them?

Second, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that names on recall petitions and referendums are public records, so they will be widely circulated.

But, given the number of people who signed recall petitions only to be surprised when their names and addresses turned up on the Internet, perhaps a disclosure like this should be added to petitions: “This is a public document subject to public inspection.”

And, exactly who—the GAB, district attorneys or judges—should decide when the address of a stalking or domestic abuse victim, or resident of a shelter, can be kept secret?

Third, is the emergence of “protest” or “fake” candidates—members of one party who gather enough signatures to run as candidates of the other party, get their names on that party’s ballot and then do not campaign—a problem that should be addressed?

Protest candidates do just enough to get their names on the other party’s ballot, forcing primary elections that delay general elections by weeks.

The Republican Party lined up protest candidates, prompting Democrats to challenge the six protesters who triggered Tuesday primaries. Democrats said these candidates’ declarations of candidacy and allegiance to a specific party amounted to fraud.

The GAB kept their names on the ballots, however.

“We are being asked … to determine whether candidates are lying,” said GAB member Timothy Vocke, a retired judge. “That is an impossible task for this board or anybody else to solve. It is something strictly for the voters to do.”

Fourth, what criteria should the GAB use when it reviews recall petitions? Current law requires the GAB to only broadly check the petitions: Is the name of the circulator and the date there? Has every signer listed an address, and an address in the district of the official targeted for recall?

Current law does not require the GAB to look for duplicate or fraudulent names. It took a Waukesha County judge to order that the GAB do that for the more than 900,000 signers of recall-Walker petitions.

Fifth, should state law be changed to give the GAB more than the required 31 days to review names on recall petitions demanding the ouster of statewide officers such as governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general?

Twice the GAB had to get a judge to extend the 31-day deadline to review the Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch recall petitions. But that defeats the goal of holding a recall election as soon as possible after petitions are filed.

Sixth, should the state constitution be changed to require anyone wanting to recall a state official to list a job-related reason? That’s the requirement to recall local elected officials.

Saying that is an unfair double standard, Republican Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, got the Assembly to recommend amending the state constitution to require job-related reasons to also recall state officials. The Senate never considered it.

But Vos, the next Assembly speaker if Republicans keep control of that house, isn’t giving up that fight.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

Last updated: 8:39 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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