Following a string of GOP losses in special elections nationwide, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker is locked in a battle with prominent Democrats over Walker’s refusal to call elections for two vacant state legislative districts.
Walker faces a court-ordered deadline of Thursday to call elections for the seats, which opened in December when the officeholders resigned to take jobs in the governor’s administration.
Voters in both districts sued Walker with the help of a group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. So far, they’ve won.
Walker has been admonished by two state circuit court judges for dragging his feet and, in their view, violating a state law that requires Wisconsin governors to call special elections for vacancies “as promptly as possible.”
Republicans control the governor’s office, Legislature and state attorney general’s office. Conservatives also hold a 5-2 majority on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, which is officially nonpartisan.
Lawyers for Walker announced they would appeal the court order Wednesday, while Republicans in the Statehouse made a legislative push. They moved to change the special election law — and make it retroactive.
The bill they could pass as soon as next week would apply regardless of any existing court orders. It would also lead to longer legislative vacancies.
Walker said he would sign the measure, arguing that elections in these districts could wait until November because Wisconsin’s Legislature has already finished its work for 2018.
“It’s a waste of taxpayer’s money,” Walker told reporters Tuesday. “And it’s one of those where I think outside groups like Eric Holder’s are really trying to push it to raise money and draw political attention to Wisconsin.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican, relied on a similar argument when he declined to call special elections last month.
Lawyers for Walker asked Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge Richard Niess to delay the governor’s court order until after the Legislature acts. Niess rejected the move.
“I am not ruling on what the law might be in the future,” Niess said Tuesday. “I am enforcing the law as it is now.”
Democrats contend Walker is dragging his feet because Republicans fear losing the seats. When Wisconsin last held special elections in January, Democrats won a surprise victory in a state Senate seat in an area that Donald Trump carried by 17 percentage points.
“Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans are so desperate to maintain their grip on power that they are changing laws to silence voters,” said Jennifer Shilling, a Democrat from western Wisconsin who leads the minority in the state Senate. “The Republican-led efforts to prevent court-ordered special elections from being held is the height of corruption and the public should not accept this abuse of power.”
Judge Josann Reynolds, who issued the initial order last week, said at the time that Walker had a “plain and positive” duty to call elections in these districts.
Reynolds noted in her ruling that while the Legislature’s regular 2018 session had ended, Walker had a history of calling lawmakers back into special session to debate specific issues.
The most recent example happened just this month when Walker called a special session to address school safety bills, and Reynolds said it was “very conceivable” that the Legislature would have to come back into session later this year to address a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Wisconsin’s landmark redistricting case.
Even if Republicans were to lose these seats — which is hardly a given — they would still hold an 18-15 majority in the Wisconsin Senate and a 63-36 majority in the Wisconsin Assembly.
But plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit to force these elections say there’s more at play here than just partisan politics.
“Why shouldn’t we have a state senator?” asked Alvin Meyer, who lives northeast of Green Bay in one of the vacant districts. “Somebody resigns, quits, or dies, you fill the job. Is the view that the role of the legislator is so insignificant that we don’t need one for a year?”