By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Madison teachers union has filed a lawsuit demanding state labor officials pay for refusing to hand over voters’ names during a recertification election last month.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s signature law stripping most public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights includes a requirement that public unions hold annual elections to remain certified as their members’ representative. At least 51 percent of all the employees in the union must vote in favor to remain certified.
According to the lawsuit filed Monday in Dane County, Madison Teachers Inc. held its 2015 election from Nov. 4 through Nov. 24. The union asked the Wisconsin Employment Relations Committee, the entity overseeing the election, on Nov. 10 for the names of all union members who had voted thus far. John Matthews, the union’s executive director, said in an email Tuesday to The Associated Press that the union wanted the voters’ names in order to learn who hadn’t voted so they could contact them and ask them to vote.
The commission denied the request. WERC Chairman James Scott explained in a letter to Matthews that the commission doesn’t have the voters’ names because they were given to a third party vendor responsible for allowing voters to cast ballots electronically or by telephone.
He added that disclosing voters’ names would violate the secrecy of the ballot by indirectly revealing who hadn’t voted. Even if he had the names he would withhold them to avoid the potential for voter coercion while the election was ongoing, he said.
WERC ultimately gave the union the names after the election was over. All five of the union’s bargaining units overwhelmingly voted to recertify but the union still sued, arguing Scott’s reasons for withholding the names weren’t justified.
According to the lawsuit, government contractor records are considered public documents and the law doesn’t protect the identity of employees who don’t vote in a recertification election. What’s more, the names’ eventual release undercuts any secret ballot argument and the contention that withholding the names to avoid voter coercion while the election was happening lacks any legal basis.
Susan Crawford, the union’s attorney, said in an email that the organization wants to establish a precedent on whether voter names can be released mid-election. Such information is key to the union’s get-out-the-vote efforts during the midst of the election, she said.
WERC’s Scott said during a telephone interview that he believes the commission is on solid legal ground.
“As a practical matter, they (MTI) win (recertification) by a substantial margins anyway,” Scott said.
The case has been assigned to Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas, who heard the teacher’s union’s 2011 challenge to Walker’s union restrictions as a whole. Colas sided with the union, ruling the restrictions were unconstitutional. The conservative-leaning state Supreme Court ultimately upheld the law, though.