MADISON - An appellate court in Waukesha Wednesday denied Gov. Scott Walker's request to hold off on two special elections as statehouse Republicans raced to pass legislation to block the contests. The District 2 Court of Appeals left in place a lower ...
Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, Milwaukee Published 9:18 a.m. CT March 28, 2018 | Updated 2:28 p.m. CT March 28, 2018
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MADISON - An appellate court in Waukesha Wednesday denied Gov. Scott Walker's request to hold off on two special elections as statehouse Republicans raced to pass legislation to block the contests.
The District 2 Court of Appeals left in place a lower court order that the GOP governor call the two special elections by Thursday, rejecting Walker's arguments.
"Representative government and the election of our representatives are never 'unnecessary,' never a 'waste of taxpayer resources,' and the calling of the special elections are, as the governor acknowledges, his 'obligation,'" the order reads.
On Wednesday, Walker appealed a pair of court orders to quickly call elections to fill two legislative seats that have been vacant since December.
The governor and his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature are seeking to approve legislation next week that would head off the special elections and give Walker broader powers to determine when to allow voters to fill vacancies in the Legislature.
If approved, Assembly 947 would likely lead to a fresh legal challenge from Democrats, who voiced their fury in testimony to the Senate Elections Committee Wednesday.
"It’s ludicrous but it’s not funny," said Kathleen Finnerty of Sturgeon Bay, who chairs the Door County Democratic Party and lives in one of the vacant districts. "It couldn’t be more transparent as to what is happening here. You’re afraid of having a Democrat elected into this position."
Democrats say Walker should have acted months ago to call the elections. They say voters have a right to be represented for constituent problems such as bureaucratic or in the event of an unexpected legislative vote, such as a lame-duck session.
Republicans say every voter in the state still has at least one lawmaker representing them and point to the costs of holding an election in the two districts. That cost a total of $403,000 to hold a spring election in 2017 and more than that to hold the 2016 presidential election, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
“Holding two special elections while the regularly scheduled elections are proceeding as planned is I think a waste of money,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) told the committee.
The legislation would bar holding special elections after the spring election in the year the legislative seat would ordinarily be filled. This year's spring election is on Tuesday.
In an effort to block the special elections even if Walker is forced to call them on Thursday, the legislation says it would supersede "any other law, court order or order of the governor."
Fitzgerald said that holding the elections under a tight time frame and with little notification might disenfranchise roughly 100 soldiers and other voters overseas.
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But Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) asked Fitzgerald why the Senate leader hadn't advanced legislation to help military voters before the judges issued their orders.
"I’ve got to be honest with you. It wasn’t on my radar screen," Fitzgerald told Miller.
Miller, who like Fitzgerald has served in the armed forces, replied that Fitzgerald was playing politics and ignoring the larger group of voters who also wouldn't get to cast a ballot.
"We are disenfranchising the thousands of voters who are without representation," Miller said.
On Monday, Walker asked the Dane County court to put off for a week the requirement that he call the special elections so the bill could get through the Legislature. CircuitCourt Judge Richard Niess denied the request Tuesday, saying that he couldn't consider legislation that hadn't passed yet.
Last week's ruling that Walker must call the special elections came from Dane County Circuit Judge Josann Reynolds, who was on vacation Tuesday.
In an emergency motion Wednesday, Walker — represented by lawyers in GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel's office — asked the court of appeals to issue a ruling by Thursday relieving him from a deadline to order the election.
The issue arose in December, when Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere) and Rep. Keith Ripp (R-Lodi) stepped down to take jobs in Walker’s administration. Walker didn't call for special elections to fill those seats despite a law that requires them to be held promptly.
In February, voters in those districts and a group affiliated with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder filed a lawsuit demanding special elections. Reynolds — who was appointed to the bench by Walker in 2014 — agreed with them last week.
In response, Walker, Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) committed themselves to changing the elections law. They plan to take up a bill to do that next week.
Two Republican senators, Luther Olsen of Ripon and Steve Nass of Whitewater, have expressed concerns about the bill. But Nass said Wednesday he was feel more comfortable with the bill after listening to the testimony.
Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
To contact your legislators
If you want to contact your lawmakers, you can find them by going to legis.wisconsin.gov or calling (800) 362-9472.
Here's how to contact the leaders of the Assembly and Senate:
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), (608) 266-9171, firstname.lastname@example.org
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), (608) 266-5660, email@example.com
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