In a move that won’t come as a surprise to the people of Wisconsin but still will appall citizens and onlookers alike in its brazenness, the Republican Party of Wisconsin voted to fire the state’s top ethics and elections officials ahead of major state and federal elections.
Ethics Administrator Brian Bell and Elections Administrator Michael Haas were both ousted in a party-line vote without a typical public hearing on their standing in the positions they held. Both men had previously worked for the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board which had been conducting an investigation about whether state governor Scott Walker’s campaign engaged in illegal coordination with outside conservative groups.
While the Wisconsin Supreme Court shut down that probe, the results of the investigation were leaked to The Guardian, who published its results to the embarrassment of Governor Walker and the Wisconsin Republican Party. An investigation into the leak of the information from the Accountability Board led to a recommendation of charges against nine people who worked on the probe, but Bell and Hass were not implicated. Leading Wisconsin Republicans nevertheless called for their resignations, disbanded the Government Accountability Board, and replaced it with the two commissions, the ethics board and the election commission.
The election commission has the responsibility of running the state’s elections at a crucial time when the security of the state’s voting systems, which were attacked by Russian hackers in the last major election, is still not assured. That Hass was in good standing with his fellow commissioners can be verified by the fact that the members of the commission unanimously voted to have him lead their efforts. More troubling still is the fact that just weeks before the first state primary of the year, the Republicans have fired the only person in the agency who has the required security clearance to work with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that the state’s election system is protected.
While Hass’s credentials prove that his removal was a purely partisan issue, the same is true of Bell, who was unanimously picked to be the administrator of the ethics commission, which oversees the state’s campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws. According to an article in The Huffington Post, an investigation by the ethics commission into Bell found there was “not a scintilla of evidence” he was partisan in his duties at the Government Accountability Board.
None of these facts seemed to make a difference to Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald who said yesterday that the fact that neither men had been linked to wrongdoing didn’t really matter to him.
“I can’t have confidence in an agency that still is employing some of the individuals that were there [the Government Accountability Board],” he told the Wisconsin State Journal on Tuesday.
The executive director of the Wisconsin branch of Common Cause, Jay Heck, called the vote not to confirm Haas and Bell:
“one of the most grotesque abuses of power that has occurred in Wisconsin in its history.”
“No evidence, no charges, no specific examples of misconduct, nothing. Just secret agreement among the members of the majority party in the State Senate to get rid of them both, right before important elections, and replace them, presumably, with sycophants and pawns that the Republicans will dictate what they decide and what the result of their work on elections and ethics will be,” he said in a statement.
Chris Ott, the executive director of the Wisconsin ACLU, was equally appalled by the action.
“The Wisconsin Senate’s vote yesterday along party lines to try ousting the head of our Elections Commission looks like political interference in a nonpartisan agency that helps and protects Wisconsin voters, just a few weeks before important statewide elections start,” he said in a statement.
With a defeat in Pennsylvania over gerrymandering electoral districts and the pervasive attempts to suppress the voting rights of Democratic-leaning citizens through claims of massive electoral fraud, the Republicans’ efforts in Wisconsin indicate that the adage about the GOP needing to cheat in order to win elections is as applicable today as it ever was.
With the state already controlled by Republicans in gerrymandered districts, and the election commission soon to be controlled by their hand-picked appointees, Democrats will have to watch the polls extra-carefully this year, especially since no one on their elections commission has the expertise to protect the polls against malicious hackers.