A bipartisan state commission has voted to retain Michael Haas as the state’s top election official, defying a state Senate vote a day earlier to oust him.
The move came despite strident protests from two Republican commissioners, including former state Rep. Dean Knudson, who warned it could bring “chaos” by creating a legitimacy crisis with state elections.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Wednesday the Senate is bracing for a legal battle over Haas.
The commission voted 4-2 Wednesday, with Republican commissioner Beverly Gill joining three Democratic commissioners, to retain Haas through April 30.
The matter is urgent because the spring elections begin next month — with a primary Feb. 20 and general election on April 3. The Elections Commission oversees the state’s elections and helps local clerks run them.
Knudson, one of the two “no” votes, told fellow commissioners that by re-appointing Haas, “you are opening up the door for chaos.” He argued the move could subject the commission’s actions to legal challenges on the basis that Haas is not its lawful administrator.
Democratic commission chairman Mark Thomsen, who led the push to retain Haas, said Fitzgerald is to blame for throwing a “grenade” into state elections by voting to oust Haas.
At issue is a power struggle over who controls the state elections agency: the commissioners, appointed by lawmakers and the governor, or lawmakers themselves.
The Senate voted 18-13 Tuesday, with all Republicans for and all Democrats against, to reject confirmation of Haas and the state’s ethics chief, Brian Bell. GOP senators said the administrators needed to go because they worked at the former state ethics and elections agency, the officially nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which they viewed as having a partisan bias against Republicans.
Fitzgerald said that based on input from legislative attorneys, “the Senate’s role in confirming appointees is determinative” and the confirmation rejection vote means Haas is out.
Walker’s administration also weighed in Wednesday before the commission vote, saying it would consider any effort to re-appoint Haas as “invalid” under state law. Walker’s Department of Administration said it sought counsel from Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel’s office, which reportedly said state law requires the commission to replace Haas with someone new.
The Justice Department couldn’t immediately be reached for comment late Wednesday.
A DOA spokesman said Wednesday that it reduced Haas’ pay to the level of a staff attorney.
Thomsen contends the Senate doesn’t have authority to oust Haas from the post. The motion passed by commission members makes clear that no matter how that part of the law is interpreted, Haas will remain as administrator through at least April 30.
Thomsen said after the meeting that it’s not clear what will happen after April 30, but he supports keeping Haas as administrator for the foreseeable future.
Legal memo cited
Instead of Haas, Knudson wanted to name the agency’s No. 2 official, Meagan Wolfe, to its top post on an interim basis. He said he and the rest of the commission supported Haas but now “the Senate has voted.”
Knudson also cited a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Council, which gives legal advice to lawmakers, that he says undermines the case for a legal fight for Haas to continue to lead the agency.
It says that while state law doesn’t specify what happens to Haas or Bell if senators vote to reject their confirmations, “it appears likely that a court would find that such action removes the administrators.”
Thomsen said Haas is the most-qualified person to lead the commission heading into the 2018 elections. Haas also is the only official with federal security clearance from the Department of Homeland Security — which Thomsen said could be critical in protecting the state’s elections infrastructure against future cyberattacks such as the ones it warded off during the 2016 campaign.
Knudson contends that retaining Haas could subject the commission to legal challenges because it delegates to its administrator the authority for many of its tasks, such as certifying candidates to appear on the ballot.
Four of the elections commissioners are appointed by each of the four legislative leaders — the Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly. The other two are named by the governor, one from each party.
Gill, the governor’s GOP appointee to the commission and a former city of Burlington clerk, was confirmed by the state Senate last year. She is serving a term that runs until May 2019.
Ethics leader also tossed out
The bipartisan Ethics Commission also unanimously supported Bell staying in his job. They will meet Thursday to discuss what comes next.
Ethics Commission chairman David Halbrooks, a Democrat, said legal action by the commission on Bell’s behalf also might be discussed.
GOP lawmakers and Walker eliminated the GAB and created the Ethics and Elections Commissions in late 2015, after the state Supreme Court ended a secret investigation into Walker’s 2012 recall campaign. The accountability board assisted prosecutors in that investigation, causing many Wisconsin Republicans to turn on the agency.
Fitzgerald signaled Tuesday that Republican lawmakers may try to purge other former accountability board employees from the ethics and elections agencies, such as the top attorneys for each — Nathan Judnic and David Buerger, respectively.
But Knudson said former GAB staffers who didn’t work on the so-called John Doe II investigation into Walker should not be singled out for punishment.