Records showing who votes and who doesn’t vote in Wisconsin elections have long been open to public inspection — before and after the polls close.
Anyone can request information about voting rolls from local municipal clerks, because transparency helps ensure fair elections.
In fact, Gov. Scott Walker signed a law two years ago making it easier for political parties and groups to get voter information electronically — prior to votes being counted. The Republican governor and Legislature required the Wisconsin Elections Commission to establish a subscription service for semiweekly updates on absentee ballots leading up to elections. Political parties and campaigns can use the information to track and remind supporters to vote if they haven’t.
So why is the Wisconsin Supreme Court so concerned about the same thing happening when unions hold votes to certify their organizations? Presumably, it’s because the conservative-leaning court is more interested in limiting the power of labor groups than upholding the state’s open records law. Unions tend to support liberal candidates over conservative ones, including in judicial elections.
The state’s high court this week voted 5-2 in favor of letting the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission delay the release of voter information during public employee union recertification elections. WERC had denied a request by Madison Teachers Inc. for lists of teachers who had voted and not voted before the deadline for casting ballots in the union’s election. WERC feared MTI would use the information to intimidate those who hadn’t voted.
But no evidence of aggressive tactics was offered. And the union understandably wanted all of its members to vote, because it needed 51 percent of eligible members to vote “yes” to recertify. Non-votes by eligible members are counted as “no” votes under state law.
Moreover, the union would never get to know how individuals voted, only whether they had voted. The same is true in general elections for public office. And unions get the same access to voting rolls in those elections as everyone else.
Yet the high court thinks union recertifications demand stricter rules, despite little to no evidence of harm. The only incident highlighted in the case was a Racine County complaint that hadn’t been verified about a different union that didn’t even involve a public records request.
Chief Justice Patience Roggensack insisted her court’s ruling only applies to a narrow set of circumstances. We hope that’s true. But we fear more public record custodians across Wisconsin will deny access to documents based on who is making the request and why. That’s not how the law is supposed to work. Either the record is open, or it’s not. And the strong presumption in the law is it should be.
The State Journal will defend Wisconsin’s strong open records law regardless of partisan politics. And we expect our high court to do the same.