jeff fitzgerald Capitol0386MPK20110615e-06152011162309.jpg
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) speaks during debate on the state budget in the Assembly at the Capitol on Wednesday, June 15, 2011. M.P. KING – State Journal

The nonpartisan board charged with overseeing elections isn't working as intended and needs to be replaced, perhaps with the more partisan model that previously existed, Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said Thursday.

The Government Accountability Board has been at the center of this summer's recall elections of state lawmakers and the ongoing effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker, since it is in charge of reviewing the petitions and setting election dates. The board also handles ethics violations, campaign finance and lobbying reports and oversees elections across the state.

Fitzgerald said he believes the GAB hasn't functioned as lawmakers hoped when they overwhelmingly approved creating the board in 2007, and the public is losing confidence in its ability to act fairly and nonpartisan.

"There's no common sense being practiced at the GAB right now," said Fitzgerald, who originally supported creating the board.

Also on Thursday, Walker's campaign and the executive director of the state Republican Party sued the board saying its plans for how it intended to review the recall petitions signatures was unconstitutional.

Board director Kevin Kennedy defended the makeup and actions of the GAB, which is comprised of six retired judges appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. It was created to replace the Elections Board, which reformers criticized as weak, and the Ethics Board, which critics said was too partisan because members were appointed by the governor.

"The current board members have more than 130 years of experience on the bench as trained decision makers, something the state did not have with the previous Elections Board, which was comprised of partisan political appointees," Kennedy said. "The nonpartisan structure of the board and its staff has been validated since its inception, and particularly during the unprecedented election and political activity of the past twelve months."

Fitzgerald specifically cited the board's decision to allow technical college identification cards to be used for voting purposes. Republican lawmakers said that went beyond the intent of the new photo ID law they passed and are taking steps to block it.

Fitzgerald also said the board acted in a partisan way when deciding that people could download personalized recall petitions. The board backed off that decision after Republicans objected.

The board has also taken heat among conservatives for how it intends to handle reviewing signatures on Walker's recall petitions. State law places the burden of challenging signatures with the targeted office holder, leaving the board with a limited role in checking only for basic information and not removing duplicates or ferreting out fake names.

Fitzgerald said he'd be open to looking at changing that law as well, but he believes it points to the need for a larger discussion about the organization of the board. He said it may be time to go back to a separate elections and ethics board, similar to what existed before the GAB.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller accused Fitzgerald of "attacking fairness."

"The Government Accountability Board hasn't responded to their previous power grabs and attempts to intimidate them, so now they're proposing to replace nonpartisan, retired judges and staff with their partisan, political appointees," Miller said.

Democratic state Rep. Gary Hebl of Sun Prairie accused Fitzgerald of wanting to turn the board into a "partisan political lap dog."

It was anger over the previous structure of the elections and ethics boards that led lawmakers to create the GAB.

Ethics Board members were all appointed by the governor and officially nonpartisan. There was no pretense of nonpartisanship on the Elections Board, whose members were appointed by the governor, political parties, the state Supreme Court and legislative leaders of the state Assembly and Senate.

The calls for reform grew loudest during the 2006 election when the elections board issued an order stripping GOP Congressman Mark Green of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal campaign donations that he had hoped to use in the gubernatorial race against Doyle.

But Fitzgerald said Thursday he felt the previous system worked "fairly well." He said there are no proposals yet to change the board's structure, but it's something that Republicans are talking about pursuing in the legislative session that resumes on Jan. 17.


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