By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
Democracy isn’t always pretty.
Look no further than the nasty business surrounding Wisconsin’s recall campaigns for daily proof.
The Kenosha teacher harassed and ostracized simply because she supports a governor that many of her peers don’t. Or the West Bend man charged with election fraud after allegedly trying to scribble out the names of recall petition signers in a reported burst of anger.
Then there is, to many observers, the general childish behavior of lawmakers so swept up in partisan politics that they’ve forgotten that they’re in Madison to do the people’s business.
There are a lot of people in Wisconsin who will tell you the state’s longstanding recall laws represent the best in democracy, putting the power to change the face of government in the hands of the people.
Plenty of others see an ugly, endless season of recalls, subverting the will of the people, aimed at killing the continuity of governance in the name of party.
These days, Wisconsin recall democracy, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.
But there’s a point that many liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, agree on: Wisconsin’s recall process should be fair and transparent.
While voters on both sides of the aisle may debate the fairness of Wisconsin’s system of recall and the current taste for removing government officials, they had, up until Monday evening, been able to count on an open showing of that system — at least when it came to recall petitions.
The Government Accountability Board, the state election board better known as GAB, decided it would postpone posting the reported 1 million signatures in the recall against Gov. Scott Walker after hearing concerns that making the names public could compromise victims of domestic abuse and stalking, and others.
Earlier Monday, GAB spokesman Reid Magney assured Wisconsin Reporter the signatures would be posted on the board's website by the end of the day, just as the accountability office promised on Friday when it released a scanned copy of the petitions to Walker’s campaign.
The sudden change of heart comes after the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin in December asked the board to hide the names of domestic abuse victims who request their names be kept out of the public eye.
The concern is understandable.
No one but perhaps the stalker or the abuser wants to compromise the safety of a victim.
But recalls are different political animals than the standard election system, demanding petition signers stand up and be counted, as GAB Director Kevin Kennedy rightly pointed out in the same WISN story.
“When you’re petitioning, there’s a strong public interest in allowing the public to see who’s on those petitions because it gives them confidence that the petitions meet the thresholds,” Kennedy told the TV station.
And confidence, for some, is sorely lacking in what they see as a politically driven system that sacrifices election integrity for political advantage.
And some, fair or not, have cast GAB as partly complicit. Kennedy, for instance, late last year said it was not the board’s responsibility to scour petitions for false names and duplicate signatures. A judge later demanded it must.
State election laws provide checks and balances, affording incumbents and their supporters the ability to review and challenge signatures, but GAB critics have said the independent board’s failure to thoroughly review petitions would put too much vetting onus on the shoulders of politicians under attack.
Transparency is what ultimately levels the playing field — not just for incumbents and challengers, but for the average citizen interested in or concerned about the recall system.
Let’s be real here. Your average Cheddarhead isn’t going to delve into hundreds of thousands of signatures in search of similar handwriting or phony names.
But some will, and it’s nice to know it’s there.
It certainly has been there before.
Last summer, confronting a spate of Senate recall campaigns, the GAB posted all recall signatures online.
“In Wisconsin, election petitions have always been public records, and the Government Accountability Board previously published the 2011 State Senate recall petitions online in the interest of transparency,” the GAB’s website states.
Search there today and you will find the recall signatures in the campaigns targeting Republican state senators — Pam Galloway of Wausau, Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls, Van Wanggaard of Racine, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau.
Magney on Monday told Wisconsin Reporter that the reported 845,000 signatures in the recall campaign against Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch were expected to be online later this week.
So why the line in the sand now?
The issue has brought together some interesting allies in the battle for transparency. Conservative news organization the MacIver Institute and Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and Money and Politics Project director at the liberal Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, have criticized the GAB’s postponement.
The Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization like MacIver, has not taken a position on the matter.
For those with serious, legitimate safety concerns, there should be some way of individually keeping names from the public while protecting the integrity of the process.
Wisconsin Reporter believes transparency in government and public life is the best antidote to the diseases of corruption and incompetence, and we stand by all who ask the GAB to quickly reinstate its decision to post online the recall petition signatures.
Wisconsin Reporter, like other media outlets have advised, will seek the documents through open records requests if need be.
Transparency isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always pretty — much like democracy.
But there can be a manageable balance between the public’s right to know and the protection of victims.
Let’s find that balance and protect democracy.