By CJ Szafir
Examples of dysfunction and illegal actions by the Wisconsin Elections Commission are in the news again. Last month, the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau released a detailed audit of the Commission’s handling of the 2020 elections, and detailed several areas where the Commission acted outside of its legal authority. And last week, the Racine County Sheriff alleged that the Commission acted illegally in 2020 by suspending special voting deputies who ordinarily would assist nursing home residents cast their ballot. Sheriff Christopher Schmaling has since recommended felony misconduct in office and election fraud charges against five of six members of the commission to the Racine County District Attorney.
These examples continue to build a strong case for abolishing the Commission, and instead handing elections oversight to an elected official that is accountable to voters. That’s the system we had in Wisconsin from statehood until 1973, when politicians put unelected appointees in charge of administering elections.
The Commission today exists in a political deadlock between three Republican commissioners and three Democratic commissioners. As a result, when a major decision must be made and the Commission cannot or will not act due to partisan bickering, unelected and unappointed Madison bureaucrats are the ones making decisions that impact the entire state. Thus, when these bureaucrats fail to follow the law, or act with poor judgement, it is nearly impossible for the impacted voters to pursue recourse.
As Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) noted last week, the current Commission is nearly pointless, ineffective and set up to fail. It’s time for an overhaul that revitalizes election oversight in the state. It’s time to put control of elections back into the hands of the people. Electing the top elections official is the successful model of 33 states today, red states and blue states alike, including every Midwest state except Illinois and Wisconsin.
We elect our governor, our mayors and county executives, our state and local lawmakers, our judges, our county sheriffs and clerks, and many other positions; should we not also elect the official who administers our elections? By electing an elections officer through the democratic process, Wisconsin citizens have a direct input into the way we are governed.
It will inject more democracy into elections, and will end political deadlock and closed-door bickering as that official will be required at the end of the day to make decisions and be judged by voters on their merits.
In light of the recent allegations, some officials have started to make calls for major reforms at the Commission, from seeking staff resignations, to calling for the current commissioners to be replaced. Others, like Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) and Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann, have called for the Commission to be abolished and the duties to be placed in the hands of an elected official who is accountable to voters.
CJ Szafir is the president of the Institute for Reforming Government.