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Clerks voice support for embattled elections board (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Election clerks registered their support Tuesday for Wisconsin’s embattled nonpartisan elections board, which would be eliminated under a bill moving quickly through the Legislature.

The Government Accountability Board meeting came a day before the state Assembly was scheduled to vote on a bill that would do away with the nonpartisan panel and create a pair of commissions to oversee ethics and elections with partisan appointees.

“Power never likes to be checked, and that’s what we’re seeing now,” said Dane County clerk Scott McDonell, who spoke in support of the board at its meeting.

Diane Hermann-Brown, city clerk in Sun Prairie, also praised the board’s work over the past eight years and raised concerns about transitioning to a new commission next year, just four months before the presidential election.

“The timing of this happening next year in June will be very difficult,” she said.

The current board oversees Wisconsin’s elections, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws. The board was created by a nearly unanimous vote by the Legislature in 2007, in response to the so-called caucus scandal from the early 2000s that resulted in Republican and Democratic leaders being charged with felonies for campaigning on state time.

To address concerns about the ineffectiveness of the old elections board, which was comprised of partisan appointees, the GAB is run by six retired nonpartisan judges appointed by the governor.

Republican backers of moving back to partisan boards say that will create a more transparent process, while Democratic opponents say it will only lead to gridlock and the opportunity for more political corruption.

Opponents of the measure, including representatives from the League of Women Voters and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said Tuesday that replacing the GAB with something that looks more like the widely criticized Federal Election Commission makes no sense.

Board director Kevin Kennedy outlined the proposal for the judges at the meeting, but none of them commented on it following his breakdown of the changes. John Franke, a member of the board, noted during its meeting that it has no role in determining its future. That is up to the Legislature, where Republicans have put the measure on a fast track.

It was introduced on Oct. 9, a hearing was held four days afterward and the committee passed it two days later. The Assembly’s vote on passage Wednesday comes just 12 days after the bill’s introduction.

The measure also must pass the Senate and be signed by Gov. Scott Walker before taking effect. Walker has been vocally supportive of reorganizing the board — which had approved a secret investigation into Walker’s 2012 recall campaign — saying that having a board with bipartisan representation including election clerks is “real reform.”

It’s unclear when the bill may be taken up in the Senate, or how deep its support is there. Only eight of 19 Senate Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors.

Kennedy told the board Tuesday he assumed the Senate would vote on the bill within the next two weeks.

Republicans have targeted the board for elimination as part of a trio of bills that come in response to the secret John Doe investigation into Walker’s recall campaign and conservative groups that supported him.

One bill, up for approval this week, would do away with John Doe investigations for politicians. The other would rewrite the state’s campaign finance law in response to a series of court rulings, and make clear in state law that the type of coordination Walker was involved with is legal.

Democrats and other opponents say the three measures together will lead to a less-regulated environment where large political donations will be easier to hide and corruption will be more difficult to combat. Republican supporters say opponents are overreacting and the measures are about freedom of speech, reacting to court rulings and designed to encourage greater participation in the political process.

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