Wisconsin election officials must "take affirmative steps" to remove fake or duplicate names from recall petitions, a judge ruled, handing a victory to Gov. Scott Walker and Republican officials who contended that the Government Accountability Board (GAB) wasn't planning to be aggressive enough in vetting signatures.
At issue were statements from the GAB, the agency that reviews recall petitions and decides whether a recall is warranted. The board had said state law required that it verify the legitimacy of addresses on the petitions, but that it is up to targeted office-holders to challenge fake names such as Bugs Bunny.
Judge Mac Davis disagreed on Thursday, ruling that the board must "apply sound judgment and discretion" in flagging and possibly investigating names that seem suspect.
Davis' ruling concludes a lawsuit that Walker’s campaign and the head of the Wisconsin Republican Party filed last month against the GAB. The lawsuit asked that a judge require the board to work harder to look for and eliminate duplicate signatures, illegible signatures, and obviously fake names.
The ruling comes less than two weeks before petition circulators seeking to recall Walker and other Republican officials are expected to turn in more than 500,000 signatures. Adding in signatures for several other Republicans targeted for recall, including Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, the board could be looking at 1.5 million signatures, GAB Director Kevin Kennedy said.
Kennedy testified that his staff has looked into the option of creating a database and entering names by hand, a process that could take eight weeks. Hiring a vendor whose software could read information from scanned petitions could speed the effort but cost about $94,000, he said.
After the hearing, Kennedy said the agency would review the decision and figure out the best way to comply. He also said he plans to ask the Legislature for additional money, enough to cover about $650,000 in initial cost estimates plus anything further as a result of the judge’s ruling.
In explaining his rationale, Judge Davis alluded to media reports in which one GAB official was quoted as saying people could sign as many petitions in the same recall race as they wanted "for any reason." Davis then cited a state law saying that, if a challenger can establish a person signed a recall petition more than once, the duplicate signatures shall not be counted.
Despite the syntax of the statement, he said, the board doesn't have to wait until a signature is challenged before it eliminates duplicates.
The wording “doesn't relieve the Government Accountability Board of any of its obligation," Davis said. "That simply empowers challengers by making it clear they can file challenges."
The name Bugs Bunny has already been accepted on a previous recall petition. Kennedy acknowledged during the hearing that someone signed the cartoon character's name last year on a petition seeking the recall of Democratic state Sen. Jim Holperin.
The board recommended counting it because Holperin's campaign didn't follow the rules for challenging names, Kennedy said. The campaign lumped it in with other suspected names but showed no evidence that it vetted the name, perhaps by searching for it in a phone book, he noted.
Plaintiffs' attorney Steven Biskupic argued that allowing a clearly fake name amounts to a violation of the Constitution's equal-protection clause. People who don't want a recall deserve to have their rights preserved by knowing only legitimate signatures are being counted, he said.
"Someone choosing not to sign has the same right as someone who does sign," he said.
The judge noted the equal-protection argument "has merit" but said he based his ruling more on state statutes.
Although Davis’s decision obligates the elections board to be more aggressive in vetting signatures, he provided few specifics on how to do so, allowing the board flexibility in deciding how it will comply.
Joe Olson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was satisfied with the decision and wasn't concerned that the judge left the specifics for compliance up to the GAB's discretion.
"GAB, to its credit, has been very good about working with all the parties involved throughout all these processes to give us information as to how they're going to proceed," Olson said. "Hopefully we won't have to be back here" in court.
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