A day after a judge said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was violating state law by refusing to call special elections for two vacant seats in the state legislature, the Republican leader of the state Senate said he would explore changing the law so that Walker did not have to call the elections.
A seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly and another in the state Senate have been vacant since December when two GOP lawmakers resigned to take jobs in Walker’s administration. They have remained empty despite a state law requiring that special elections be called as promptly as possible when a seat becomes vacant before the second Tuesday in May in a regularly scheduled election year.
Walker decided instead to let the new legislators be chosen in November ― because he said it would save the state money and the legislature wouldn’t be in session in any case. His lawyers also said that he didn’t have to call special elections sooner because the vacancies occurred in late 2017 and not in 2018, the year of the next regularly scheduled elections. Democrats accuse Walker of not letting the voters weigh in earlier out of concern that Republicans will lose the seats. They sued him in February.
On Thursday, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Josann Reynolds, a Walker appointee, agreed with the Democrats and gave the governor until March 29 to call the special elections.
But on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said that Reynolds’ order would lead to “chaos.” He said he wanted to change the state law and suggested, without further detail, that special elections should align with regularly scheduled elections, according to The Capital Times. Fitzgerald also said that lawmakers could take up such legislation next month.
The Wisconsin legislative session ended this week, but Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) said Friday that they would call lawmakers back for an extraordinary session to consider an elections bill.
In a Friday statement, the governor said he agreed the law should be changed.
“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. Nomination papers for any special elections called now would circulate around the same time nomination papers circulate for the November elections,” 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.”
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D) criticized the proposal, saying Republicans were just trying to preserve their power.
Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, also criticized Judge Reynolds for her comments suggesting that Walker had hypocritically abandoned his usual support for a strict reading of laws with his interpretation of the special election statute. Fitzgerald said that her comments were “way out of bounds,” according to The Capital Times, and that she should be disciplined by the state Supreme Court.
Vos attacked Reynolds as well on Thursday, describing her as “an activist Dane County judge” who had let her personal beliefs interfere in the case. Those comments prompted an angry letter from Dane County Circuit Court’s Chief Judge William Hanrahan, who told Vos that he should apologize and that he had “sullied your own reputation, diminishing any hopes of being taken seriously as a statesman.”
The “D.C.-based political group” that Walker referred to is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Its affiliate brought the lawsuit against Walker on behalf of several state residents.
Holder released a statement about the new plan to call a special legislative session to stop the special elections.
“Even for Republicans in Wisconsin, this would be a stunning action to keep citizens from exercising their right to vote,” he said. “They appear to be afraid of the voters of Wisconsin. We are fully prepared to take legal action in response to any further attack on these voters, who have now been without representation since December, because of Scott Walker’s refusal to call elections.”