Under court order, Walker schedules special elections to fill vacant legislative seats

After losing three court rulings, including one by the State Appeals Court, Governor Walker on Thursday reluctantly called special elections to fill two vacant legislative seats, and Republican legislative leaders dropped their efforts to circumvent current law in an attempt to delay the elections to November.

As a result of the Wednesday and Thursday developments, general elections will be June 12 to fill seats that were vacated in late December when Walker appointed Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, and Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, to administrative positions. Walker and Republican leaders wanted to leave those seats vacant until November, but state law requires the governor to call special elections “as promptly as possible.” The lower court ruling gave Walker until noon Thursday to call the special elections. Walker – through the Department of Justice – appealed, but after the Court of Appeals ruled against them Wednesday, they opted not to take the case to the State Supreme Court.

In making its ruling Wednesday, the Appeals Court said: “Representative government and the election of our representatives are never ‘unnecessary,’ never a ‘waste of taxpayer resources,’ and the calling of the special elections are as the Governor acknowledges, his ‘obligation’ to follow.”

Republicans – who reportedly feel their party is more likely to win the elections in the fall – have been working on a bill that would change state law and allow them to leave the seats vacant for now and delay the elections until November. Their hope was to get the courts to delay their rulings long enough for the Legislature to hold an extraordinary session to pass a new law that would allow them to leave the seats empty until November.

On Wednesday, the Senate Elections Committee held a hearing on the bill that would change the law, and Democrats voiced strong opposition. “It’s ludicrous but it’s not funny,” said Kathleen Finnerty of Sturgeon Bay, who chairs the Door County Democratic Party and lives in one of the vacant districts. “It couldn’t be more transparent as to what is happening here. You’re afraid of having a Democrat elected into this position.”

The bill planned for the extraordinary session would have removed the provision in state statute requiring special elections to be called “as promptly as possible.” The bill would also would have created a new requirement that would mean legislative vacancies occurring after early December of odd-numbered years would not be filled until the regular November election the following year.

“Democracy depends on fair elections,” said WEAC President Ron Martin. “That’s third-grade social studies. If our high school seniors need to take a civics test to graduate, is it too much to ask our elected leaders get it right?”