Here is my full column that ran earlier in the week in the Washington County Daily News.
After another election cycle where the Wisconsin Election Commission did everything they could within and without of the law to tilt the election results to the Democrats, there is talk again of restructuring or rebuilding the WEC to make it less partisan. The problem is not with the structure or mission of the WEC. The problem is with the people who run it and the refusal of lawmakers to hold them accountable.
The history of the WEC is important to remember. The WEC came into existence in 2016 as a response to the corrupt Government Accountability Board. The GAB was an allegedly bipartisan board that was responsible for the oversight of elections and ethics. Particularly after Gov. Scott Walker won in 2010 and Republicans won majorities in the Legislature, the GAB was involved in multiple scandals as they used their power over elections and ethics to advance the cause of Democrats. It was one of the many cases of Democrats weaponizing a purportedly unbiased government agency for political gain.
But the GAB was created for the same reason as the WEC. The GAB was only in existence for less than a decade. It was formed in 2008 to assume the combined responsibilities of the State Ethics Board and the State Elections Board. The GAB was created because the State Ethics Board and State Elections Board had been involved in multiple scandals where they used their authority to influence outcomes instead of acting fairly and, ironically, ethically.
Do you see the pattern? While the response of politicians to the rogue actions of one of their creations is to reshape it with the vain notion that structure can be a substitute for leadership, they ignore the root of the problem. The problem is not the structure. The problem is the people.
The structure of the WEC is designed to balance competing interests. The commission is comprised of six appointed commissioners who serve staggered five-year terms. Two of the commissioners are appointed by the governor. Two commissioners are appointed by the Senate majority and minority Leaders. Two commissioners are appointed by the Assembly speaker and Assembly minority leader. As structured, no single political party would ever have complete control of the commission, but one party could control a majority of the commissioners.
The commissioners are responsible for leading the WEC, but they hire a staff that does most of the work. The staff is also responsible for making recommendations to the commissioners on public policy matters. The WEC is not a lawmaking body. The extent of their mandate is to manage Wisconsin’s elections within the firm boundaries set forth in state statute. It is in the intentional violation of their legal boundaries where the WEC most often runs afoul of their charge.
In just the last few years, the WEC has bent or broken the law in a number of ways. They refused to purge the voter rolls in a timely fashion as directed by law. They reportedly allowed nursing home staffers to cast votes on behalf of residents in violation of the law. They allowed municipalities to use unattended ballot drop boxes, closed polling locations, prohibited special voting deputies from entering nursing homes, and repeatedly used the pandemic as an excuse to ignore state law. All of these actions made it easier to cheat and made our elections less likely to actually represent the will of the people.
Beyond the affirmative violations of the law, the WEC exploited its regulatory authority to favor Democrats. In almost every single dispute about an election process or action, the WEC ruled in favor of Democrats. It is remarkable that a purportedly nonpartisan and unbiased commission would make decisions in favor of one party so consistently.
The structure of the WEC is supposed to prevent such biased actions. The fact that the WEC is an appointed commission that is accountable to elected officials is supposed to hold them accountable to the law and mission of the commission. Here is where the actions, and inactions, of people is the root of the problem.
When the WEC was created, it was staffed almost entirely with the same Madison bureaucrats who worked in the GAB. Since the GAB was discredited and dissolved because it was corrupt, it was ludicrous to move the same staff to the new commission, but that is exactly what happened.
With the same biased and corrupt staff, the new commissioners of the WEC have the power and responsibility to act legally and fairly. Here again, the commissioners have failed in their duty to use their power to keep Wisconsin’s elections free and fair.
Even as the commissioners are failing in their duty, it is the duty and responsibility of the governor and legislative leaders to hold their appointees accountable when they violate the letter or spirit of the law. Here again, the elected leaders are failing in their duty.
The WEC has three layers of leadership and accountability, and all three layers are failing because of the weak and/or corrupt people who are in those leadership positions. There is no alternative commission structure than could instill ethics or backbone in people who do not have them already.
The problem with the WEC is not the structure. The problem with the WEC is the people responsible for running it. Until the people of Wisconsin hold elected officials accountable, the problem of corrupt and sloppy elections in Wisconsin is not going away.