Badger Battle: Fight Looms as WI Senate Votes to Oust Elections Chair

[Image via madison]

The long-running battle between Wisconsin Senate Republicans and the state’s election commission flared again yesterday when the chamber voted – on party lines – to block the confirmation of the state’s election director, setting up yet another fight over the agency’s future. JSOnline has more:

Republican state senators Tuesday denied the confirmations of the directors of Wisconsin’s ethics and elections commissions — and the leader of the state Senate said he hoped to remove two civil servants at those agencies next.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said Republicans had lost faith in the Ethics Commission and Elections Commission because they continue to employ people who worked for the now-disbanded Government Accountability Board. The accountability board participated in a sweeping investigation of Republicans that was shut down in 2015 after the state Supreme Court concluded nothing illegal occurred…

The bulk of Tuesday’s floor debate focused on Brian Bell, the director of the Ethics Commission, and Michael Haas, the director of the Elections Commission. The Senate voted to deny their confirmations on party-line, 18-13 votes.

But the bipartisan chairs of the two election commissions say they plan to fight the move:

The fates of Bell and Haas are unclear. According to GOP senators and the Department of Administration, they no longer have their posts but have the ability to move into different state jobs. 

But Mark Thomsen, the chairman of the Elections Commission, said a vote denying Haas’ confirmation would have no effect. The Elections Commission — not the Senate — has the power to remove Haas, Thomsen said. 

“They can’t fire him,” he said of the senators. 

Thomsen scheduled a commission meeting for 3 p.m. Wednesday — the same time Walker hopes to capture Wisconsin’s attention by delivering his annual “state of the state” speech. 

He said he still considered Haas the head of the agency and would support having the commission vote to make that clear on Wednesday. That could set up another showdown with the Senate. 

One move could be to reappoint Haas an interim director:

“I would certainly hope there would be six votes to continue with Mike Haas as interim administrator,” Thomsen said. 

David Halbrooks, the Democratic chairman of the Ethics Commission, said his commission would likely meet Thursday to decide whom to hire as its interim director. He declined to say whether he would consider re-hiring Bell for that job.

The commissions each consist of three Republicans and three Democrats. They have unanimously backed Bell and Haas. 

Like a lot of what has transpired in Wisconsin over the last few years, this news is disappointing but not surprising – once held up as a model for bipartisanship in election administration, the Badger State is now living up to its name with seemingly perpetual disputes over the legitimacy of the state’s election agency and the people who run it. I can hope it won’t affect the state’s preparations for 2018 and beyond, but it’s hard to be optimistic. Either way, stay tuned …

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