Incoming Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, called for a change in the state’s nonpartisan Elections Board Monday, saying it is not independent like it was intended to be.

The Government Accountability Board, created with bipartisan support in 2007, oversees state elections as well as ethics, campaign finance and lobbying. Recently, that has meant fulfilling its regular duties, including preparing the regularly-scheduled elections as well as verifying petitions and overseeing two rounds of recall elections.

Fitzgerald said he wanted to change the board of six retired judges to one with political appointees. Making that change, he said, would “strike more of a balance” than the current board, which he said erred on some decisions during the recalls.

“I just don’t think they’re an independent voice at all,” Fitzgerald said.

The Legislature, which will be controlled by Republicans again next month, would have to pass a bill to make such a change. Gov. Scott Walker would then have to sign the change into law, but his spokesperson did not respond by press time to a request for comment on whether he would support that.

GAB Director Kevin Kennedy said the board’s decisions are nonpartisan and noted the board’s 130 years of combined experience as judges. He compared the board to referees in sports, as he said it is rare for all sides to be pleased with their calls.

“The board’s record speaks for itself,” Kennedy said in a statement. “The GAB is viewed across the country as a model for handling politically-charged situations with fairness, impartiality, nonpartisanship and transparency.”

In 2007, the Senate voted to create the GAB unanimously, including Fitzgerald’s vote. In the Assembly, it only received two votes against, both from Democrats. The GAB’s predecessors were a nonpartisan Ethics Board and an Elections Board that many thought was too political and overlooked violations.

Fitzgerald’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, said in a statement that the Legislature in 2007 decided to get rid of the “dysfunctional [and] partisan” Elections Board and create the GAB. Moving back to the Elections Board would not be good for the public, he said.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said he agreed with Miller. He said the GAB is seen nationwide as an example of an elections and ethics board that is “insulated” from political pressures.

“Why on Earth would we want to change back that national model to what we had before, which was basically a highly-partisan and highly-politicized agency that did what the politicians wanted it to do”? McCabe said.

The GAB receives criticism from Democrats and Republicans on certain issues, which he said has helped it achieve its reputation of being independent and fair, McCabe added.  

Sean Lansing, spokesperson for the conservative-leaning MacIver Institute, said looking at changes in the GAB is valid and could be part of the Legislature’s reforms on elections in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

“Legislative leaders have indicated on more than one occasion that election reform could be a priority this session, and if that’s the case then it certainly makes sense to look at everything from voter ID and same-day registration to the makeup and performance of the GAB,” Lansing said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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