GOP Lawmakers Pushing to Make it Tougher to Mount Recall Elections
Republicans say millions were spent unnecessarily on summer recall elections and they want to change state Constitution to require "just cause" for a recall effort.
Even with record unemployment and minimal job growth across the country, there is still one business that has demonstrated it is recession-proof: politics.
The Wisconsin recall elections were a boon for statewide cash flow, with nearly $44 million in private funds pouring into the state for nine state Senate races. The Democrats and their supporters spent over $23.4 million for their efforts, with the GOP and conservative groups spent $20.5 million, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
By comparison, $19 million was spent on all of 99 state Assembly elections in November 2010.
On top of the money raised in the recall, it cost municipalities another $2.1 million to hold the elections, print ballots and notices, and pay poll workers and canvassers, according to the state Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections in Wisconsin. That figure also includes the work of the GAB to oversee the recall.
The GAB surveyed the 40 counties that held recalls in August and tallied the cost of ballots, poll workers and overhead at the polls. The estimated costs were unbudgeted, and some municipalities say they will have to draw the money from contingency funds typically reserved for snow removal or natural disasters.
GOP says high costs were unnecessary
State Republican lawmakers have characterized these huge expenditures as a waste of resources. And state Rep. Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee) was so distressed by the time and money spent that he is proposing a constitutional amendment to reform the recall process.
Farrow said recalls should be held for a specific reason, such as being found guilty of a misdemeanor carrying a one-year jail sentence or a breach of the Legislature’s code of ethics. Eight other states require misconduct or breach of ethics as a reason to recall.
“This amendment will allow Wisconsinites the opportunity to protect the integrity of our regular election system,” said Farrow, whose district includes part of Brookfield and Sussex. “Furthermore, by requiring that just cause be shown when attempting the recall of an elected official, the amendment will ensure that recall elections remain rare - rather than on a cycle of constant repeat.”
The other current requirements for a recall - obtaining 25 percent of the votes cast in a district during the most recent gubernatorial election and only recalling those who have served at least one year in office - would remain in place.
“My view is that recalls should be reserved for true breaches of trust or misconduct,” Farrow said. “The most recent recalls were being used for political issues. In November (2010), the majority of voters swung control of the Legislature. The minority didn’t like it and they wanted to change that.”
He likened the current recall process as a way for the minority to squelch the voice of the majority of Wisconsin voters.
Farrow and state Reps. Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Gary Tauchen (R-Bonduel) began circulating the amendment on Tuesday to find co-sponsors. As of Friday, no others have signed on, but state Sen. Alberta Darling expressed interest in the idea, especially the “for cause” requirement.
Pasch, Darling weigh in on proposal
Of the nine Senate recall elections in July and August, the most closely watched and the most expensive, was the 8th Senate District race between Darling (R-River Hills) and state Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay). About $10 million was spent on that race, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported.
Darling said recalls shouldn't be considered a “do-over” on valid election results and that people need to accept that the November elections had consequences.
“If voters don’t agree with policies, they need to wait until the next scheduled election,” Darling said. “The recall elections cost taxpayers money and cost the state of Wisconsin months of lost time in the Legislature.”
But Pasch, who lost to Darling, said the proposal is more about Republicans protecting their own jobs.
“Simply put, citizens should have the right to hold their elected leaders accountable if they don't that feel their values and interests are being aptly represented," Pasch added.
The 8th Senate District includes most of the North Shore, plus Germantown, Menomonee Falls, Mequon, ThiensvilleRichfield, and a small part of Milwaukee.
GOP's moves justified recall, Kessler says
Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) is strongly opposed to the amendment. He said even though the recall option has been used sparingly in the state, this year's unprecedented actions called for its use.
"The people were fooled by Governor Walker and the Republicans with their blatant dismantling of collective bargaining rights," said Kessler, whose district include a portion of Wauwatosa. "This is a conscious effort by the GOP to weaken accountability."
As for the record amount of money spent on the recalls, Kessler would like to see campaign spending and contribution limits on both sides of the aisle, but doesn't consider the expenditures wasteful.
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate called Vos’ involvement to change recall elections hypocritical.
“Robin Vos supported the recall election of Democratic senators, raised money for Republican candidates, campaigned for Scott Walker’s 'Darling' and said nothing while his party ran phony candidates as Democrats, which drove up the costs of recall election, which all of a sudden seem to bother him," Tate said.
Getting the state constitution amended is no easy task. The measure would have to pass two consecutive sessions of the state Legislature and pass a statewide vote before taking effect.