Time to fight for the GAB

On Monday night, July 20, the WisconsiGoldGAB.jpgn Election Integrity Action Team gave our second public demonstration of a method our local elections officials could use to quickly, transparently, and reliably check the accuracy of voting-machine output during the local canvass period that follows every election--before the computer output is certified as our final, uncorrectable election results.

More than a few elections inspectors (poll workers) were on hand but despite our mailed, emailed, and social media invitations, no municipal or county elections officials attended. Two elections officials, however, did come out to hear what we citizens had to say and to engage in constructive, problem-solving discussion about effective, legal ways we might more reliably ensure accurate election results: Kevin Kennedy, Director of the Government Accountability Board and David Buerger, Elections Administration Specialist.

Take a moment to contemplate that. In today's political climate, how many other state officials can you think of who would be willing to sit down with about 30 (that's an estimate; I should have counted, but didn't) citizens in a meeting sponsored by a group that has sometimes been critical of their work; listen intently for almost two hours; and then engage in mutually respectful, constructive give-and-take discussion? My answer: None.

I cannot help but think this sort of mission-focused conduct has a lot to do with the nonpartisan nature of the Government Accountability Board. During my 30-year career in state service, I worked for both the Legislative Audit Bureau, headed led by a relentlessly nonpartisan director appointed by a bipartisan standing committee, and for an executive-branch department headed by a partisan-appointed secretary. (Governors of both parties appointed secretaries during my tenure there.) 

The difference in internal decision-making was dramatic. In the nonpartisan legislative service agency, the internal discussion was 100% focused on questions like "What was the legislature's documented intent for this program?" "What are the appropriate standards?" "What does the evidence tell us?"  "What conclusions and recommendations would be most useful and constructive?' After the audit team submitted the draft report to the State Auditor, the discussions never--and I mean NEVER--turned to political considerations. Our reports were reviewed and edited for clarity, and we were challenged on sufficiency of evidence but never with the intent of altering our honest conclusions. The single mission and focus was ensuring that the citizens and taxpayers of the state were efficiently and effectively served by state government. Period.

At the partisan-headed department every project began and ended with awareness of what the governor and secretary wanted. I conducted honest analyses and prepared factual reports, but upper management's questions reliably revealed much more concern about what might benefit the governor and his party than about whether we were reporting the whole unbiased truth. I cannot remember any pressure to produce false information, but I also cannot remember a single conversation with upper management--when either party was in power--in which their sense of partisan interests did not play a pivotal role.

That's the nature of partisanship: Even when relatively benign, as was the case when and where I worked in that executive-branch agency, one political party's interests are given at least equal consideration with those of the entire state. In agencies headed by partisan appointees, partisanship influences every worker to distort their thinking, their conclusions, their proposals, the questions they ask of their data and each other--and ultimately their public statements and conduct.

There must be some benefits of partisanship; it wouldn't be so ubiquitous if it wasn't serving some function for someone. But I'm a natural-born, down-to-my-bone-marrow non-partisan, so I cannot easily summarize those benefits. Still, I won't try to argue to make it all go away.

But I will argue passionately that partisanship needs to be kept in its place, and elections administration is absolutely not its place. The People must be able, at will, to shift political power back and forth among political parties if those in power are to remain accountable and responsive. And elections are how the people shift power. Like our forebears who have defended our freedom to exercise our right to self-government since the Magna Carta, I will be damned before I will consent to handing elections administration over to partisan officials. 

Elections administration--even aside from elections policy-making--involves hundreds of small judgments that could be influenced by partisan concerns. Our elections administrators are continuously deciding which problems they will tackle and which they will brush off; which regulations to enforce diligently and which to let slide a bit; which tasks to tell staff to prioritize, which tasks to put off, and which to leave entirely unassigned until they can fill that vacancy.

And when it comes to elections policy, the opportunities for partisan distortion of the People's ability to choose are even more consequential. Policymakers define the problems; lead the studies that shape our collective understanding of the causes; control the information available to us; and frame the options for solution. Even when personally honest and well-meaning, partisan election-policymakers are inevitably tempted to constrain the People's ability to choose representatives of the another party. They wouldn't be able to help it; any normally flawed human being who has been designated as a representative of a party will feel a need to be more aware of and responsive to that party's unique interests.

We need to make sure that Scott Walker's most recent announcement that he wants to abolish the GAB (this has come up before) will die as quick a death as the proposals to alter the mission of the UW; shut down the Legislative Audit Bureau; or amend the open records law into oblivion.

Walker has not this time yet put forth a specific proposal for the agency's replacement. However, given his record as the most relentlessly partisan governor in living memory, and this legislature's demonstrated commitment to single-party rule, it would be absurd to believe his statement that they want only an agency that is "more accountable to the people." No intellectually honest person can take that sound bite seriously, given this governor's and this legislature's defense of 2010's redistricting process, though that's just the tip of their single-party-in-power iceberg.

Immediate public outcry saved the UW's mission, the LAB, and the open records law. It's time to do it again. Here's a list of state legislators, and here's a link to more talking points, if you don't like mine. Get on the phone and tell them that Wisconsin deserves and demands nonpartisan elections administration and they need to leave the GAB alone.

This is our right to self-government, folks. Let's show them what real patriots look like.

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