BLOCKED! Wisconsin Courts, Governor and Parties Spar Over (Not) Scheduling Special Elections

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In Wisconsin – a state, it seems, that cannot go very long without another election-related controversy – the courts, the governor and the Legislature are involved in a dispute whether special elections must be held in districts that have been vacant for over a year. The Journal-Sentinel has more:

Dealing a setback to Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans, a judge ruled [last] Thursday the governor must call special elections to fill two vacant seats in the Legislature.

Walker declined to call those elections after two GOP lawmakers stepped down to join his administration in December.

His plan would have left the seats vacant for more than a year. Voters in those areas took him to court with the help of a group headed by Eric Holder, the first attorney general under Democratic President Barack Obama.

Dane County Circuit Judge Josann Reynolds — whom Walker appointed to the bench in 2014 — determined Walker had a duty under state law to hold special elections so voters could have representation in the Legislature. She said failing to hold special elections infringed on the voting rights of people who lived in the two districts.

“To state the obvious, if the plaintiffs have a right to vote for their representatives, they must have an election to do so,” said Reynolds …

Under her ruling, by [this] week Walker must call two special elections to fill the seats that belonged to former Sen. Frank Lasee of De Pere and former Rep. Keith Ripp of Lodi. The two Republicans stepped down in December to join Walker’s administration.

Reynolds did not say when the elections would be held, though they could be as late as May. The winners would stand for election again in November.

The battle has now shifted to the Legislature, where reports that the Governor’s allies are moving to convene a special session to change the law in question:

The governor would no longer be required to call special elections for vacant legislative seats “as promptly as possible,” under a measure the Senate plans to take up next week.

The proposal is the promised response from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, to a Dane County judge’s order last week that Gov. Scott Walker call special elections for two vacant legislative seats. The bill, if passed, would override that order.

On Monday evening, the Department of Justice, which is representing Walker in the lawsuit brought by a group led by former Democratic Attorney General Eric Holder, asked the judge to delay her order by one week, to allow time for the Legislature to pass the bill and make the lawsuit moot…

Senators have ended their regular period of voting but would come back in what is called “extraordinary session” to vote on the bill on April 4. The Senate Committee on Elections and Utilities plans to hold a public hearing on the bill Wednesday.

The Governor and his allies argue that the special elections are unnecessary because lawmakers have completed their work for the year:

Under the proposed bill special legislative elections couldn’t be held after April spring elections in even-numbered years and would have to be called by early December in the preceding year.

But there would no longer be statutory language directing the governor to call a special election on a specific timeline. Fitzgerald emphasized that the state Constitution still requires the governor to fill such vacancies, but it doesn’t specify a time frame.

“This eliminates the need for multiple elections in a short timeline, saving taxpayer dollars and avoiding voter confusion,” Fitzgerald said.

The proposal comes in response to a Dane County judge’s ruling last week that Walker call special elections to fill two legislative seats that were vacated in late December. One is in the 42nd Assembly District, which includes the town of Dane. The other is in the 1st Senate District, which includes Door County.

Walker decided not to call special elections for those seats because the Legislature was nearing the end of its work for the year. In its filing Monday, DOJ said Walker would call the election for June 12 if the motion is granted or not. But the motion warns such an election would cause “voter confusion and the wasteful expenditures of time and money,” which is why the Legislature plans to change the law, rendering the lawsuit moot because under the proposed bill Walker would be barred from calling a special election after the April 3 spring election.

Democrats argue that the majority is stalling the elections in order to strengthen their hand on a variety of issues, including a potential redistricting bill, and to avoid Democratic victories such as those seen in other recent special elections nationwide.

Yesterday, another judge reaffirmed the order requiring the special elections to go forward for now – but the Legislature could change that if the proposed bill is enacted. If and when it is, the parties will almost certainly once again be back in court.

In short, it’s a mess – but increasingly par for the course in a state where partisanship seems to be the default approach to election issues. Stay tuned …

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