The head of the state’s elections board defended the nonpartisan agency at a meeting Tuesday in the wake of a recent audit and Republican leaders’ calls to completely overhaul it.

Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel for the state Government Accountability Board, said Friday’s audit provided useful guidelines for improving the 7-year-old agency.

But he also said he gets “a little defensive” when he hears that the agency isn’t adhering to the law, given the vast responsibilities of the board, which include overseeing elections, campaign finance and ethics.

Gov. Scott Walker said Tuesday the audit “clearly shows” there are problems with the board.

“Those are things that people have talked about for some time, but now to have an objective third party review through the Legislative Audit Bureau report, I think raises some serious questions. Those have to be addressed,” Walker told reporters. “I honestly don’t know what the right approach is. It’s something I’m willing to work with lawmakers on in both parties.”

Walker added that the solution may be modifying the current board, creating something that’s completely new, or going back to the previous partisan model.

“There are pluses and minuses to each of those,” he said.

But the governor added that lawmakers should take the time to make sure any changes would “add value.” And he said he is currently focused on the budget, school accountability and regulatory reforms — and hopes any changes to the GAB come up later in the session, which starts next month.

“I think that probably gives them time to see if the GAB has acted on any of those recommendations or not,” Walker said.

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Kennedy said at Tuesday’s meeting that the board was already acting on some of the recommendations.

He said trouble with the state Department of Corrections’ felon database caused problems with the GAB and local officials successfully identifying felons voting illegally, which was one of the problems noted in the audit. For example, some voters were falsely identified as voting illegally because they shared names with felons, but had not themselves committed any crimes and had voted legally.

Ethics division administrator Jonathan Becker also said that some of the complaints that staff members received from citizens weren’t referred to the board because the complaints were outside the board’s jurisdiction, including complaints from prisoners about their incarceration.

He was responding to a finding in the audit that staff members had no written procedures for considering complaints filed with the GAB.

Kennedy said it’s been beneficial to have a one-stop shop for elections, campaign finance and ethics at the GAB rather than the two separate agencies it replaced in the wake of Wisconsin’s caucus scandal.

But Judge Elsa Lamelas, a board member, said she was “very concerned by the audit report.”

She said staff members needed to follow statutes in a “logical and thoughtful fashion, rather than an ad hoc way.”

Lamelas called for staff members to report to the board by March 1 with details about statutory duties and who is handling them.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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