The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections in the state, has now green-lit three recalls targeting Democratic state Sens. Dave Hansen, Jim Holperin and Robert Wirch — but it was a close call, as the board grappled all through the day with a topic that isn’t discussed too much in the media: Alleged election fraud that is perpetrated by Republicans.
The state Democratic Party and the three incumbents had filed extensive challenges to the petitions that were filed by the Republicans, triggering an extensive debate among the board members (retired judges who are selected through a mostly non-partisan process), the GAB staff lawyers, and Democratic and Republican Party attorneys over what the threshold was to disqualify petitions based on claims of fraud.
Adding to the political dimension the GAB had already certified six other recalls, all of them spearheaded by the Democrats to target Republicans who voted for Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-public employee union bill, but had to receive an extension of the review time from a judge for these three recalls, because the Dems had filed much more extensive challenges. As a result of the extension, these new recalls (or any necessary primaries) will take place on July 19, a week after the July 12 date for the recalls targeting GOP legislators.
The board faced a conundrum, in that the Dems’ challenges outlined a significant number of signatures that were the products of apparent fraud. But even without all the signatures that the Dems were able to question within their ten-day review period, there would still be enough signatures left to trigger recalls.
However, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, the GAB’s staff laid out several options for the board. The first option would be to green-light the recalls, on the grounds that enough signatures remain that have not been challenged. The other options, for which the staffers cited various precedents in other states, would be to disqualify all petition pages collected by certain signature-gatherers who had exhibited a pattern of fraud, beyond just a few disqualified signatures that normally occur — which would shut down the three recalls in question — or even to throw out all the petitions entirely as the ultimate sanction.
Democrats had used their ten-day response period, after Republican activists had submitted the completed petitions, to conduct extensive phone surveys of the people whose names were on the forms. Along the way, they produced affidavits from people alleging various dirty tricks, ranging from claims that they were misled into signing — being told that it was to support the legislator in question, or to recall Walker, etc — to claims from some individuals that they did not sign their names at all, but were forged as having done so (possibly by getting their names from the phonebook).
Most notoriously, the Dems found the purported signature of a man who had been dead for 20 years, but whose name was still in the phonebook (by peculiar circumstance, he was the father of a very liberal current Democratic state representative). In addition, they found a married couple for whom the signatures were clearly written in the same hand — but both people have signed affidavits that neither of them actually did sign.
As one might expect, the Republican attorney Eric McLeod argued before the board that only specific, identified signatures should be tossed, preserving the state’s constitutional right for voters to sign recall petitions. On the other side, both Democratic attorney Jeremy Levinson and GAB staff attorney Shane Falk have each been arguing in their own ways that petition efforts involving crooked circulators have to be held accountable in some way, in the name of protecting the process.
To be clear, this was a very serious decision, with major implications either way that were thoroughly discussed throughout the GAB’s meeting. To throw out all of a crooked circulator’s pages would very likely disenfranchise the signatures of many other people who had legitimately signed the papers in good faith, and might have helped constitute a sufficient number of people to hold a recall election against a legislator. But to leave the petitions in could potentially make it virtually impossible to disqualify future recalls that might entail extensive fraud, involving too many signatures for the opposition to effectively screen out.
As one judge on the board said: “I think I’m discovering what a Hobson’s Choice is.”
Ultimately, the board voted to send a message for future recalls, by voting to strike individual pages that were circulated by some of the more offensive petition-gatherers, on the pages that showed a pattern of fraudulent conduct. This still left enough signatures to certify those recalls to move forward.
(Special thanks to Wisconsin Eye, the state equivalent of C-Span, for live-streaming the meeting.)