June 30, 2016

GAB’s Obituary

Nonpartisan election administration dead at age eight

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

As the month of June comes to an end, so does the end of our non-partisan Government Accountability Board, or GAB, after eight and a half years in service.  GAB started in January of 2008 in the fallout of the “caucus scandal” in which leaders from both parties were accused of campaigning using state resources.

The scandal dragged out for several legislative sessions as those accused had their day in court. What came out during the investigation was a longstanding tradition by both Republicans and Democrats to order government employees to campaign while on state time.

The scandal broke before I was first elected in 2003, but I lived through its aftermath. Politicians and staff were hauled into the district attorney’s office and revealed that the practice was so widespread that we needed a new government watchdog.

Editorial board after editorial board wrote about ending the rigged system of political appointees overseeing our elections. Eventually, in 2007, I joined a bipartisan group of legislators in voting to create a nonpartisan board of former judges to oversee our elections. 

In 2008, the Government Accountability Board began to oversee Wisconsin's campaign finance, elections, ethics, and lobbying laws. The board was made up of six former judges who are nominated by a panel, appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. Wisconsin was the only state to have a truly nonpartisan board structure, and was a national benchmark for maintaining government accountability. During it’s time, GAB certified nearly 27 million votes cast, including the third ever gubernatorial recall election in our nation’s history.

In a 2010 paper titled “The Persistence of Partisan Election Administration,” Ohio State University law professor Daniel P. Tokaji wrote: “The best American model is Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, which consists of retired judges selected in a way that is designed to promote impartiality.”  In 2013, he later wrote a draft paper titled "America's Top Model: The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board."

But, the GAB made one fatal bold move. They investigated allegations that Governor Scott Walker’s recall campaign accepted illegal in-kind corporate contributions. As the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. After redrawing the election maps to ensure a Republican legislative majority and rewriting campaign finance laws to benefit well-funded candidates, Walker and his allies had one more trick up their sleeves. They eliminated the nonpartisan government watchdog and replaced it with a partisan board.

During the debate about the bill, my colleague, Senator Mark Miller (D-Monona) said, “The GAB wasn’t broken. It was dismantled by Republicans looking to settle a political vendetta.”

On July 1 of this year, Wisconsin will return to a model terrifyingly similar to the old guard, which didn’t really guard our democracy from anything. Partisan appointees will once again decide major decisions like whether or not to fine politicians for breaking the rules. Because under the not-so-watchful eyes of our old ethics board, the caucus scandal operated right out in the open for decades, I believe the worst is yet to come for Wisconsin’s ethics and elections practices.

At the time of its repeal, 62% of those polled by Our Wisconsin said the board should remain an independent and impartial board of judges. 

Former Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson was spot on when she said, "We are going to go right back to where we were decades ago." As a woman who took over running the State Senate in the aftermath of the caucus scandal, Senator Robson knows just how dangerous this move is.  

The creation of the GAB was once an outstanding bipartisan political accomplishment. Its destruction is a sad reminder that, if given the opportunity, Republicans will do just about anything to stay in power. 

Connect with Senator Lena C. Taylor on social media on Facebook.com/SenLenaTaylor,Twitter.com/SenTaylor or follow her at Instagram.com/Lena.Taylor.