By DINESH RAMDE
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Democrats got a victory Friday when the Wisconsin Court of Appeals overturned a judge’s order for state election officials to be more aggressive in ferreting out fake or duplicate signatures on recall petitions.
The order had been aimed at those examining petitions to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is being targeted in part for pushing last year’s law ending nearly all collective-bargaining rights for most public workers.
United Wisconsin, the coalition that spearheaded the recall effort along with the Democratic Party, turned in 1 million signatures last month, almost twice as many as are needed to force a recall election against the governor. The signatures are still being vetted by state workers.
Walker’s campaign had sued the state Government Accountability Board in December, saying the GAB wasn’t planning to be aggressive enough in tossing fraudulent signatures. The board had previously announced that signatures such as Mickey Mouse or Adolf Hitler wouldn’t automatically be struck as long as they were properly dated and had Wisconsin addresses.
Judge Mac Davis ruled in favor of Republican officials in early January, ordering state election officials to “take affirmative steps” to remove fake or duplicate names from recall petitions. However, he provided few specifics on what those steps should be.
In vacating Davis’s decision Friday, the three-member appeals court unanimously ruled that Democratic recall committees should have been allowed to participate in a hearing on the case.
“It cannot be seriously disputed that the recall committees have an interest in the procedures that will be used to review their recall petitions and strike names,” the court wrote.
The case now goes back to Davis, who will have to issue a new order on how the GAB must handle signatures.
Attorney Jeremy Levinson represents the recall groups, which include committees to recall Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and three Republican state senators. He had argued that his groups deserved to be involved because any changes to the way that recall signatures are validated would affect any Democrats targeted by future recall efforts.
He said Friday he was pleased with the ruling.
“All we want is the same rules that apply to every other recall,” he said. “I think this is a big step in that direction.”
Stephan Thompson, executive director of the state Republican Party and a plaintiff in the case, released a statement saying the decision “does not invalidate the need for heightened transparency and integrity in this process.”
“We encourage the GAB to continue its effort to ensure that Wisconsin electors are not treated unfairly in this process,” he said.
Before the lawsuit was filed, GAB director Kevin Kennedy had said Wisconsin law requires the board to presume that petition signatures are valid, so staff couldn’t automatically strike names that might appear fake. He said state law left the obligation of challenging fake names up to the office-holders being targeted.
Board spokesman Reid Magney said the GAB had no comment on Friday’s ruling.
“The Government Accountability Board will discuss the decision at its meeting Tuesday in closed session,” he said.
Levinson said that although recall groups have more than enough signatures, Friday’s decision was still important because it could help prevent unnecessary challenges that lead to expensive delays.
“No serious person is going to claim we don’t have enough signatures,” he said. “Instead of wasting time and money we should just get to the recall elections.”
The appeals court also addressed a number of arguments related to the process of approving signatures, suggesting that making the approval process too exacting could lead to valid signatures being tossed.
For example, it said it’s possible that John Smith and John Smith Jr. live at the same address and both signed their names as John Smith. It also cautioned that ordering the GAB to strike “patently fictitious” names could lead to the dismissal of legitimate signatures of voters who share names with famous people.