Haters Gonna Hate: Fight Over Wisc. GAB Shows Non-Partisanship Comes From Deeds, Not Structure


[Image courtesy of onepopz]

‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off …

– Taylor Swift

Few jobs in American election administration are more difficult than the one currently faced by Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board (GAB). With seemingly every hot-button issue in election policy (voter ID, recalls, “dark money” prosecutions, etc.) making an appearance in the Badger State, the GAB and its director Kevin Kennedy are constantly at the center of the fierce partisan fights that have become commonplace in recent years.

Now, at least one high-profile state leader is vowing to make changes. Milwaukee’s BizTimes has more via veteran political correspondent Matt Pommer:

An angry Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) is vowing to change how Wisconsin elections and ethics are regulated.

Vos says the Government Accountability Board is “dysfunctional, unresponsive, and totally undemocratic.” The board, which oversees elections, is composed of six former judges who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

Vos complained about the board’s handling of legislative recall petitioning and voting, and its support for the John Doe investigation into possible illegal coordination between Gov. Scott Walker and conservative groups. He also dislikes the model ballot offered to county clerks for this year’s general election.

“I promise you that two years from now when we are sitting here, the GAB will not be in the current format,” Vos told the Wisconsin State Journal. “I’m really disappointed in the way the GAB operates.”

What’s interesting about the Speaker’s criticism is that the GAB is designed to operate outside of state politics:

The director is appointed by the board of ex-judges outside the civil service system. The GAB was created in 2007 to replace both the State Elections Board and the State Ethics Board.

The goal then was to put distance between the politicians and decision-making about elections, lobbying and ethics. The goal was to provide an aura of neutrality in those crucial areas.

More interesting, Wisconsin is often cited as a model by academics and others who seek to establish a formal non-partisan structure for election administration nationwide. What does it mean, then, when this supposed ideal is still coming under fire?

Columnist Pommer suggests that Speaker Vos is already in a position of strength and shouldn’t complain:

Vos’ outspoken criticism seemed out of place – especially in the middle of the election cycle. Going into the Nov. 4 election, Republicans already controlled virtually every aspect of state government, except the GAB. [Redistricting] by the 2011 GOP-controlled Legislature seems to assure Republican control of the Legislature until 2020.

And four professors writing for one of the state’s leading newspapers have argued that the Legislature should keep its “hands off the GAB”, citing how both sides in Wisconsin have had complaints about the agency’s decisions in recent years:

GOP leaders groused in 2012 about how recall signatures were validated and by the GAB decision to allow electronic documents to be used as proof of residence. They have been especially upset about the GAB’s investigation in the second John Doe investigation [into illegal campaign finance coordination]. Most recently, two legislative leaders complained that a ballot redesign favored Democrats.

These gripes made news partly because Republicans are in power and because legal wrangling over John Doe continues. But Democrats have had their share of complaints, too.

In 2011, the GAB sided with three Republican state senators who were accused by a liberal group of ethics violations. In 2012, liberals railed against the GAB for not removing “fake” Democrats in recall primary elections. More recently, they criticized the GAB for moving to implement the contested voter ID law before the U.S. Supreme Court blocked it.

All of this suggests both bad news and good news for the GAB. The bad news is that any idea that partisan criticism and election controversy would disappear because the state adopted a formal nonpartisan structure for election administration was way off base.

The good news is that the GAB has a record of impartiality independent of its structure. As the professors note –

The fact that the GAB does not bow to the wishes of either party is not a problem to fix. It demonstrates that the agency serves as an independent steward of our elections.

For that reason, I believe the GAB is a national model for non-partisanship – not because of its structure (which quite frankly would be hard to enact just about everywhere else), but rather its actions.

Indeed, I believe every election official in the country – elected, appointed, (D), (R) or whatever – can look to the GAB as a model of how to stay true to a nonpartisan ideal for election administration. What the GAB also teaches us, however, is that a record of non-partisanship doesn’t insulate an agency from partisan attacks; it just makes it possible to refute them through a reputation for doing the right thing.

In other words, “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” regardless of an election agency’s structure – but a commitment to non-partisanship in deed like that of the GAB helps election officials “shake it off!”

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