A judge in Wisconsin threw a curveball Thursday evening into the recall campaign targeting Republican Gov. Scott Walker, ruling that state election officials must make a greater effort to screen out fake or duplicate petition signatures — rather than abide by the pre-existing rules, which have placed more of the burden on the Walker campaign.
The state GOP’s lawsuit filed in mid-December against the state Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections in the state, claims that Walker’s 14th Amendment rights of Equal Protection are violated by putting a burden on his campaign to review and challenge petition signatures within a ten-day period. Instead, they say, the GAB must thoroughly search for and directly strike out duplicate signatures, and invalid names and addresses.
The Associated Press reports:
Adding in signatures for several other Republicans targeted for recall, including Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, the board could be looking at 1.5 million signatures, GAB director Kevin Kennedy said.
Kennedy testified that his staff has looked into the option of creating a database and entering names by hand, a process that could take eight weeks. Hiring a vendor whose software could read information from scanned petitions could speed the effort but cost about $94,000, he said.
After the hearing, Kennedy said the agency would review the decision and figure out the best way to comply. He also said he plans to ask the Legislature for additional money, enough to cover about $650,000 in initial cost estimates plus anything further as a result of Thursday’s ruling.
Davis also said that the Equal Protection argument “has merit,” but confined his ruling to construction of the relevant state laws. (This was probably a good idea — when a state judge hands down a ruling based on the U.S. Constitution, this leaves the ruling open to potential appeal in federal court.)
TPM asked the GAB what measures will be taken to comply with the decision, and also whether this could have the effect of delaying the recall election, assuming that organizers have successfully collected the signatures.
“The only comment we have at this time is that the Government Accountability Board will take all steps necessary to implement the court’s order,” staff counsel Michael Haas responded.
The Wisconsin GOP released a victorious statement from executive director Stephan Thompson.
“The Waukesha County court’s ruling today that the Government Accountability Board must take affirmative steps to identify and strike fraudulent signatures from recall petitions was a victory for the millions of Wisconsin electors who were at risk of being disenfranchised amidst the recall effort,” Thompson said. “The Republican Party of Wisconsin is committed to working with the GAB in its efforts to preserve the integrity of the recall process, ensuring that all individuals are treated equally, and any fictitious names or duplicate signatures are removed from petitions.”
In an interesting legal turn, WisPolitics reports that the Republican legal team did successfully produce an example of an actual instance in which “Bugs Bunny” was counted as a signature from last year’s state Senate recalls. But in a twist that is perhaps worthy of Stephen Colbert, the recall in question was in fact the Republican-mounted recall campaign against Democratic state Sen. Jim Holperin.
The GAB’s response in court was that Holperin’s campaign failed to properly challenge the signature individually, instead lumping it in with a larger group of signatures that they were challenging en masse, without providing evidence per GAB rules. Holperin later won his recall — which was actually the second of his political career, following one from 20 years ago when he was in the State Assembly.
The lawsuit was filed by the state GOP in Waukesha County, the state’s major Republican stronghold, and ended up being assigned to Judge J. Mac Davis. As for his own background, Davis was a Republican state Senator over 20 years ago, and during the final years of the Bush administration, he was nominated for a federal circuit judgeship, but the nomination was never taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
To be absolutely clear, though, a judge’s previous political background is not automatically a count against them, and it is far from uncommon for legislators to go on to become judges.
Last week, Davis ruled against a motion by the Democrats and other recall organizers, to intervene and become parties in the case. This meant that the litigation was conducted exclusively between the state GOP and the election board’s attorney, without the Dems themselves being able to participate and present legal arguments.
When asked for comment on Davis’s decision last night, the recall committee’s attorney Jeremy Levinson gave a scathing statement to TPM: “The case was political theater. Scott Walker wanted the agency to do the work at taxpayer expense that campaigns have always done. He also wanted to smear the referee before the game began. And Judge Davis obliged. The reality is this doesn’t change the fact that despite Walker’s attempt to escape the judgment of voters is a dead letter. There will be an election no matter how many lawsuits the Walker litigation machine dreams up.”
Also back in mid-December, the Dems announced that they had collected over 507,000 signatures in 30 days, getting very close to the legal threshold of just over 540,000 signatures in 60 days. (They are also working towards a goal of 720,000 total, in order to have an absolute buffer against disqualification.) The party also told TPM that this 507,000 figure takes into account also own efforts to weed out bad signatures.