Gov. Scott Walker is deliberately denying Wisconsinites representation in the Legislature by refusing to call special elections to fill open seats in the state Assembly and the state Senate.
In doing so, he is rejecting the clear intent of Wisconsin’s statutes, which declare: “Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the Assembly occurring before the 2nd Tuesday in May in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat shall be filled as promptly as possible by special election.”
So what’s up?
It may be that Walker is refusing to schedule the special elections because he is scared. The results of special elections held last Tuesday were disastrous for Walker and his Republican allies. The party lost a state Senate seat in western Wisconsin’s 10th District, as a 26-point Republican advantage in November 2016 shifted to a 11-point Democratic advantage in January 2018. And the GOP came closer than anyone expected to losing an Assembly seat in overwhelmingly Republican Washington County, where a Democrat won 43 percent of the vote. Even the governor admits the loss of the state Senate seat represents a “wake-up call.”
It may be that Walker — who has run his campaigns with massive infusions of money from outside Wisconsin, devoted much of his tenure to jetting around the country in pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination, and approved extreme gerrymandering of legislative district lines, restrictive voter ID laws, and assaults on early voting, same-day registration and a host of other voting rights — really is as willing to sacrifice Wisconsin democracy on the altar of his many ambitions as his critics suggest.
Whatever his reason, the fact remains that Walker has refused to call special elections to fill the seats of former state Sen. Frank Lasee, of De Pere, and former state Rep. Keith Ripp, of Lodi, a pair of Republicans who quit the Legislature in December to take posts with the governor’s administration. The governor wants to leave those seats open until January 2019 — denying tens of thousands of Wisconsinites representation in the Legislature for almost a year.
When the governor initially refused to call the special elections, his aides claimed that it would be a waste of money to hold them because the Legislature wouldn’t be all that busy in 2018. But Walker just called a special session to enact schemes that pick on people who need food stamps. Under pressure from legislative Democrats, Walker is also saying that he wants the Legislature to take major steps to address the crisis that developed on the governor’s watch at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls — as part of an ambitious agenda to reform how Wisconsin incarcerates young people.
In other words, the Legislature already has a busy agenda for 2018 — and it could get even busier as the year goes on.
So Walker’s excuse for leaving Wisconsinites without representation lacks even baseline credibility. What the governor is doing is wrong. He should call the special elections. Now.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising. Nichols is the co-author, along with Dave Zweifel, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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