WDC: Overhaul ‘Jury of Pals’

Reforms Needed to Restore Elections Board’s Integrity

December 3, 2001

Madison - The state Elections Board has become the captive of the political power brokers it is supposed to regulate and needs a major overhaul if it is to effectively serve the public interest, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said today as it offered options for reforming the agency.

"The Elections Board is not a jury of citizens’ peers, it’s a jury of the politicians’ pals, " WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. "What is supposed to be the public’s campaign finance watchdog has become little more than a loophole mill."

Board members are political appointees hand picked by the state’s top political leaders. The governor and the four legislative leaders - the Senate majority and minority leaders and the Assembly speaker and minority leader - each make an appointment to the eight-member Board. The remaining three appointments are made by the state Democratic and Republican parties and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

"The Elections Board is a classic example of the fox guarding the hen house, " McCabe said.

In order to restore the Elections Board’s integrity and independence as a regulatory agency, the way Board members are selected needs to be changed, McCabe said. Reforms need to remedy the intense partisanship that has taken root on the Board, address the inherent conflict of interest in having Board members appointed by political leaders they are supposed to regulate, and break the stranglehold the two major political parties have on the Board, he added.

One option would be to have each of the seven nonpartisan justices on the state Supreme Court appoint a member to the Board. Additionally, Board members could be required to be nonpartisan. Specifically, a condition of appointment could be that prospective members not belong to any political party and not have been a candidate for partisan elective office or made a campaign contribution to a partisan candidate in the last five years.

An alternative approach would maintain a partisan element on the Board, but expand partisan representation beyond the two major political parties. For example, in addition to having members appointed by the seven Supreme Court justices, each political party with ballot status could be given an appointment.

A reformed Elections Board also has to be given the resources it needs to be an effective regulatory agency, McCabe said, specifically proposing the addition of a full-time campaign finance investigator position and a full-time auditor position to the Board’s staff.

McCabe cited the Elections Board’s record of inaction in making the case for reforming it and beefing up its budget:

  • Although a "Citizens Right to Know" law passed in 1998 required the Board to create a system of electronic filing of campaign reports by July 1999, the Board still has not implemented the law.
  • The Board ignored an open invitation from the state Supreme Court to craft new regulations closing a gaping loophole in Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws that special interest groups have exploited to avoid the law’s disclosure requirements by running so-called "issue ads." Instead of taking the Court up on its invitation, the Board instead opted for a rule that institutionalizes the loophole.
  • In November, the Board significantly widened the loophole when it ruled that state political parties also can avoid campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements in Wisconsin law by running "issue ads. "
  • Also last month, the Board dismissed a complaint alleging illegal collusion between the Assembly Republican Caucus and Todd Rongstad, a Republican operative who ran an independent campaign group called Project Vote Informed. The Board voted to end its probe before it received answers to investigators’ questions sent in the mail by one of the central figures in the case and after two other targets of the probe refused to answer questions for fear of incriminating themselves.
  • The Board dropped its investigation into allegations of illegal campaign contributions by legislative employees without contacting individuals with evidence of unlawful activity, including former Democratic Party voter file manager Don Fish, who filed a 15-page complaint with the Board and claimed to have 500 pages of documents supporting his allegations. The Board never interviewed Fish and never acted on his complaint.
While the Elections Board was purportedly cooperating with the investigations of the district attorneys in Dane and Milwaukee counties as well as the state Justice Department, one Board member publicly expressed his disdain for the probes. In an article published on WisPolitics.com, Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen’s appointee R.J. Johnson referred to Dane County DA Brian Blanchard as "Mr. John Doe investigation " and a "moron extraordinaire" who "continues to chase an issue he knows won’t hold water." He called Attorney General James Doyle "self-righteous" and "Just Plain Stupid."

Johnson said the Wisconsin State Journal had "adopted National Enquirer standards " in its investigative series on the legislative caucuses and likened the newspaper’s caucus coverage to supermarket tabloid stories about "alien abductions."