MADISON — Before the new state Legislature, governor and lieutenant governor are sworn in, state Republicans are attempting to do a bit of house cleaning that has state Democrats upset.
One point in particular involves moving 2020 presidential primary from April to March, but allowing the election of judicial, education and municipal officers, and nonpartisan county officers to remain on the April ballot.
It’s a move that has outraged some clerks, including Waterford’s clerk, who called it “unfathomable” and said it sets clerks up for failure.
This would essentially create two spring election days, whereas in the past there would have been only one. In the likely event a February primary is needed, that would make for three elections in three months in 2020.
The decision on the presidential primary, along with a number of other pieces of legislation, is part of a extraordinary legislative session that is scheduled for Tuesday.
The election of a Wisconsin state Supreme Court justice would be included in the April election primary, which has some Republicans concerned.
Democrats are poised to have several candidates vie for the party nomination for the presidency in 2020, which means there is likely to be a high turnout in favor of Democrats, which could be troublesome for Republican candidates on the ballot.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, recently claimed that moving the primary date gives state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, outgoing Gov. Scott Walker’s conservative-backed appointee, a “better chance” of winning the election.
Despite this proposal, dozens of county clerks across the state have expressed their opposition to the change. County clerks oversee elections in their counties.
However, it is unclear if Racine County Clerk Wendy Christensen is opposed to the change. She could not be reached for comment last week.
Mount Pleasant Village Clerk Stephanie Kohlhagen sent a letter to state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, stating she is against the change.
“Even if the state were to cover the substantial costs municipalities would incur by moving the election, there are significant logistical difficulties with conducting a stand-alone presidential primary in March, which will prove hard to overcome,” Kohlhagen wrote. “We barely have sufficient time to accomplish the myriad election tasks necessary between the February primary and the spring election in April. Adding another election in March risks stretching the ability of local governments to administer a smooth, secure, and error-free election process.”
Waterford Village Clerk Rachel Ladewig said it’s asking a lot for clerks to squeeze in an election between the spring primary in February and spring election in April; she called it “unfathomable.”
“Doing something like this seems like they are trying to set us up for failure,” Ladewig said. “I know municipal clerks do an excellent job in managing everything that goes into an election and I would hate to see this compromised because it becomes a little more than they can handle.”
Separation of partisan, nonpartisan elections
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he hopes the Legislature will be able to pass legislation moving the presidential primary.
“Honestly, we should’ve done it sooner,” Vos said. “There’s nothing more important than having Wisconsin’s voices heard … making sure that we have a nonpartisan election (for court justice) separate from the partisan election.”
Vos does not view moving the primary as a partisan advantage but instead as an opportunity for presidential candidates to make their case to voters.
“The earlier you are in the primary cycle, candidates are more likely to come here,” Vos said, adding that back in 2016, “By the time it got to Wisconsin, it was really down to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.”
Democrats view the potential move much differently.
State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, whose district includes a large part of eastern Racine County, said he doesn’t buy Vos’ claim that Wisconsin’s primary won’t get many candidates, saying there are “going to be plenty of candidates” coming to the state.
“It’s a bad idea,” Wirch said of moving the primary. “Republicans ran during the recent campaign as fiscal conservatives, now they’re talking about sticking it to the taxpayers to the tune of about $7 million by switching this election.”
Wirch said he believes the motivation behind moving the primary date is a shot at Tony Evers, the Democratic governor-elect.
“I’m just always amazed that these Republicans talk about ‘bipartisan this, bipartisan that’ and the first thing out of the gate is they want to stick a shiv in the new governor’s back before he takes office,” Wirch said. “So much for bipartisanship.”
State Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, said the attempt to move the primary is a “power grab” after statewide elections did not go the way of Republicans.
“I think that is a shameful political move and the people of Wisconsin deserve better,” Neubauer said. “I am hopeful that the Republicans will listen to the people of Wisconsin and respect the votes they took in this election and allow the (primary) elections to proceed as scheduled.”
Going into an extraordinary session, Neubauer said is a “clear attempt to pass legislation to preserve the powers of one party is undemocratic.”
“We had an election; the people of Wisconsin have spoken,” Neubauer said. “I think we need to allow the new governor and lieutenant governor to do what the people have asked them to do.”