Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers are moving quickly to change when special elections must be held in the wake of a court order requiring special elections for two vacant legislative seats.
Dane County Circuit Judge Josann Reynolds — who was appointed to the bench by Walker in 2014 and elected to a six-year term the following year — blistered the governor Thursday for refusing to call the special elections and ordered him to do so within a week.
The Senate and Assembly, which wrapped up their regular session business this week, are planning to meet in extraordinary session to take up a bill that would change the timeline for special elections, according to a statement issued Friday by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
Walker — even before formal legislation had been made public — said that he would sign the bill.
“A D.C.-based political group wants to force Wisconsin taxpayers to waste money on special elections at a time when our Legislature is ready to adjourn for the year,” Walker said. “It would be senseless to waste taxpayer money on special elections just weeks before voters go to the polls when the Legislature has concluded its business.”
Under Reynolds order, however, the elections need to be held as early as May 29 or as late as June 12, months before the November general election.
And if Walker had acted before Jan. 2, the elections could have been held with the spring nonpartisan election April 3, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Fitzgerald told reporters Friday he believes the special elections in the districts formerly held by Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, and Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, would be “chaotic.”
Fitzgerald said the legislation could force those elections to happen during the regularly scheduled August primary and November general election, but it would depend on whether Reynolds’ order is stayed. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the case Friday.
Fitzgerald said he didn’t have a set plan for how to change the law, but it could be as simple as requiring vacancies be filled during the normal spring and fall election cycles. He said when the Legislature moved the fall primary from September to August to accommodate overseas and military absentee ballots, it should have addressed this situation then.
“No one is trying to slow down or halt anything related to an election,” Fitzgerald said of criticism that Republicans are trying to avoid the special elections because of fears that resurgent Democrats are winning special elections across the country. “What we’re trying to do is make sure this makes sense.”
Fitzgerald criticized the tone of Reynolds’ ruling in which she questioned why Walker didn’t call for special elections to fill the vacancies as required by law. On Thursday, Vos criticized Reynolds as an “activist Dane County judge,” which prompted Fifth Judicial District Chief Judge William Hanrahan to demand an apology.
Fitzgerald said Reynolds’ and Hanrahan’s public statements were “way out of line” and reflected a larger problem with Dane County judges being hostile to conservatives and Republicans.
He called the Fifth Judicial District a “laughing stock” in the state and said he would talk with Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Pat Roggensack about the situation.
“All of those comments about the governor were just way out of bounds,” Fitzgerald said. “I would hope that Justice Roggensack would police that.”
Reynolds and Hanrahan did not respond to a request for comment late Friday.
Fitzgerald said he had received legal advice last year that the vacancies, which occurred in late December, occurred too late to align with the spring primary schedule, which begins with the circulation of nomination papers on Dec. 1, and wouldn’t be filled until the fall election, for which nominating papers circulate starting April 15.
State law requires the governor to call for a special election for any vacancies that occur prior to May of an election year. Walker argued the requirement applies only to vacancies that occur between January and May of an election year, which Reynolds said “flies in the face of reason and applicable statutory principles.”
Fitzgerald wouldn’t offer an opinion on whether Reynolds’ ruling was a correct interpretation of the law, but said it creates headaches for local elections officials, particularly with possible overlapping nomination paper and absentee ballot deadlines for the August primary and November general election. He said Reynolds didn’t consider those practical effects in her ruling.
“The logistics of this is very messy,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think Judge Reynolds considered that at all how this would transpire in the real world. … The average taxpayer is going to be like, ‘You’re kidding me.’”
The lawsuit was brought by a group led by former Democratic Attorney General Eric Holder. It came after a Democrat won a special election for a Republican-held seat in northwestern Wisconsin.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said Republican leaders were throwing a “temper tantrum” because the ruling didn’t go their way. Democrats have proposed requiring the governor to call special elections within 60 days of a vacancy occurring.
“Republicans are clearly intimidated by the thought of losing power and would rather create chaos and confusion going into a tough re-election year,” Shilling said. “Rather than depriving thousands of Wisconsin families their constitutional right to representation, Senator Fitzgerald and Speaker Vos need to get it together and focus on the problems they were sent here to fix.”