By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin election board officials told the Legislature’s audit committee Wednesday that they have been struggling with an unprecedented workload as they worked to blunt a critical evaluation of their performance and save their agency from the chopping block.
The Government Accountability Board has been forced to administer multiple recall elections, implement voter photo identification and conduct a massive statewide recount with limited staff during the past four years, the board’s director, Kevin Kennedy, told the committee.
“The Government Accountability Board is a Wisconsin success story,” Kennedy said. “I am disappointed that some critics of this agency have used this nonpartisan audit to make political points rather than focusing on how we can work together to maintain Wisconsin’s excellent record and reputation for running elections and transparency in government.”
The GAB, made up of six nonpartisan judges, oversees Wisconsin elections and ethics compliance. Republicans who control the Legislature have been particularly critical of the GAB since it approved an investigation into whether GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups.
The GOP wants to adopt a more partisan model. Rep. Dean Knudson, a Hudson Republican leading the push to overhaul the board, has said he plans to introduce a plan soon that would create a hybrid entity with both partisan and nonpartisan appointees.
Republicans have been trying to use a state audit that found a number of issues with the board as further justification for such a move. The review found that board staff didn’t consistently follow a penalty schedule for enforcing campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws; failed to conduct reviews to identify felons who may have voted illegally; has no written policy on handling complaints; and has failed to draft administrative rules despite board orders to do so.
“It seems to me the board was really negligent and the staff was really negligent in overriding the board’s authority,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, a committee member. “The Legislature needs more transparency, more accountability.”
Kennedy told the committee that it’s not feasible for the judges to get involved in the board’s day-to-day functions and that he has to make tough choices on how to deploy the board’s limited resources during a “politically turbulent time.” He noted that during the four years the audit covered, the board had to run 19 recall elections, train local clerks on voter ID requirements and conduct a statewide recount in 2011 that confirmed state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser defeated challenger Joanne Kloppenburg.
“It’s concerning to me that we’re taking what we’ve heard today … to build something new when it feels like overall they implemented over 95 percent of what it is we’ve asked them do,” said Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison.
Timothy Vocke, a board member who served as chairman in 2013, said he was sure the board was making mistakes and welcomed the audit as a roadmap toward improvement. He added though, that “the bottom line … was there was no criticism as to dishonesty, laziness, unfairness nor partisanship.”
Rep. John Macco, R-DePere, agreed that no one was accusing the board of being dishonest. But that’s not the problem, he said.
“Maybe competence or incompetence is a concern I have,” he said.