There are vast differences on many critical issues between Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in this recall election. The same is true for the two candidates on issues of transparency, the election process and campaign financing. These issues are not — or should not be — partisan and ought not to advantage Republicans over Democrats or vice versa.
Wisconsin was once considered a model for the nation on these issues. But not anymore. Substantial political reform is needed in this state, and the governor’s leadership is critical for reform to advance and for Wisconsin to be in the forefront of “good government” again.
On four key political reform issues, here are the positions of the candidates for governor, to the extent that they are known:
• Disclosure of outside special interest group campaign spending: Tens of millions of dollars are being spent in this recall election. All of the money raised by Walker and Barrett is disclosed because it must be by law. But Wisconsin voters do not know where many of the millions being spent by outside special interest groups is coming from because Wisconsin has yet to pass a disclosure law requiring these groups to report who their donors are. Walker has said nothing in support of bipartisan legislation introduced earlier this year that would have required outside groups to report the donors of widely disseminated communications in the period before an election.
When Walker was in the Wisconsin Legislature, he voted against disclosure legislation in 2001 and opposed it during his entire tenure in the Assembly.
Barrett voted for the U.S. House of Representatives’ version of the McCain-Feingold legislation that required the disclosure of donors to outside campaign spending groups in 2002 – when it became law. Barrett has said that as governor, he would support disclosure of all outside special interest group campaign spending.
• Public financing of state elections: Wisconsin was one of the first states in the nation to establish partial public financing of state elections in 1977. We also enacted a sweeping, full public financing law for state Supreme Court elections in 2009.
The rationale for public financing is that candidates who receive it have to abide by spending limits and they are beholden to the public at large, instead of to special interest groups, for the funding of their campaigns. Public financing causes elected officials to exercise more independent judgment in the public policy-making process.
Last year, Walker eliminated all public financing of all state elections in Wisconsin – the only state in the nation to have done so. Walker has never been supportive of public financing of state elections.
Barrett has not been directly involved in state policy-making since 1992, but was generally supportive of Wisconsin’s partial public financing system for elections in place at that time. He has not indicated whether he would push for public financing and spending limits if he is elected governor.
• Redistricting reform: Every 10 years, following the census, state legislative district boundaries and congressional districts must be redrawn to reflect population changes. In 2011, the process was the most secretive and partisan in Wisconsin in a century, costing Wisconsin taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to high-priced Madison lawyers — and it was done with no public input. There are now fewer competitive state legislative and congressional districts than ever before.
Walker signed this redistricting bill into law and has not indicated that he sees any need to change the process.
Barrett supports taking the redistricting process out of the hands of partisan legislators and having it done by a nonpartisan entity such as the Government Accountability Board, which would replace partisan considerations with a goal of compactness, keeping communities of interest intact and competitiveness in the drawing of new districts.
• Voter photo ID: Last year, Wisconsin enacted into law the most extreme, restrictive voter identification law in the United States. Proponents said it is needed to prevent voting fraud, but investigations after every recent election have shown that there is virtually no voter impersonation at all in Wisconsin. This law makes it much more difficult for certain segments of the state’s eligible voters to be able to cast and have their vote count at the polling place: college students, the elderly, urban dwellers who rely on public transportation and minority groups. The law is so restrictive that it is being reviewed by the courts and may be unconstitutional; therefore it is not in place for the recall election.
Walker signed the voter photo voter ID law and enthusiastically supports it.
Barrett believes the law is too restrictive and opposes it.
Like the candidates, Wisconsinites have differing views on these political reform issues. But they should be considered in the overall picture when choosing who should be elected governor on June 5.
Jay Heck is the executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, the states’ largest nonpartisan political reform advocacy organization with over 3,000 members. www.commoncausewisconsin.org.