All three Democratic state senators targeted for recalls will have to stand for election this summer after the board that oversees elections declined on Wednesday to invalidate petitions circulated against them, even though it found evidence of fraud.
The Government Accountability Board voted to reject thousands of signatures it determined were either fraudulent or collected by circulators through misleading means, such as saying the petition was for something other than recalling the Democrats.
But even after those signatures were tossed, more than enough remained to force recall elections for Sens. Jim Holperin of Conover, Dave Hansen of Green Bay and Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie.
The senators were targeted for the positions they took on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's divisive proposal taking away collective bargaining rights from most state workers.
The stakes in the recall efforts are huge. Since winning majorities in both chambers in the last election, Republicans have been able to advance their agenda unimpeded. If Democrats were to pick up three seats in recall elections, they would control the Senate and could block legislation.
Wednesday's decision by the nonpartisan board of six retired judges can be appealed in circuit court. The attorney for the Democrats said no decision has been made on whether that will be done.
State Democratic Party spokeswoman Gillian Morris expressed disappointment in the decision but confidence the targeted senators will win.
Democrats argued all day that the fraud was so rampant in the petition process that the board should summarily reject all of the petitions.
But Stephan Thompson, executive director of the state's Republican Party, said he was pleased that the board had decided the senators should be subjected to recalls for "abandoning their duties."
"We are pleased that the senators who fled our state during one of the most important fiscal discussions in state history will now face recall for what they have done," Thompson said.
Board member Gerald Nichol said he wasn't willing to throw out all the petitions but that a message had to be sent to those who committed fraud. Otherwise, he argued, "It's an invitation to abuse the entire system."
"It's still important we say that fraud is not an acceptable conduct," said board member Gordon Myse.
The Democrats' attorney, Jeremy Levinson, argued that the Republican-led recall efforts did not reflect the will of the electorate. He said the circulators from Colorado the Republicans paid to gather signatures were motivated by financial gain, not the underlying political issues, and that this led to widespread fraud.
He cited problems including one petition signed by the deceased father of Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan and evidence that petition circulators lied about what it was they were asking people to sign.
Eric McLeod, the attorney for petition circulators, described the fraud claims as "empty rhetoric" and said there was no evidence to back them up. McLeod said the burden was on the challengers to prove with clear and convincing evidence that there was fraud and that he had no obligation to rebut their assertions.
Ultimately, more than enough signatures were certified to force the recalls. Holperin needed 15,960 signatures and there were 19,255 approved. Wirch needed 13,537 and there were 17,138. Hansen needed 13,852 and there were 15,540.
The primary election for Republicans seeking to challenge them would be July 19. The general election would be Aug. 16.
The board has already approved recall elections on July 12 for six Republican state senators in what is part of the largest effort to recall office holders in Wisconsin history.
The Republicans passed the collective bargaining law after Senate Democrats fled the state, delaying a vote for weeks. The law never took effect because it was challenged in court and a judge ruled Republicans violated the open meetings law when passing the bill. The state Supreme Court is weighing an appeal.
The targeted Republicans are Sens. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac, Dan Kapanke of La Crosse, Luther Olsen of Ripon, Alberta Darling of River Hills, Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls and Robert Cowles of Green Bay.
The Wisconsin Republican Party is encouraging protest candidates to run as Democrats to force primaries in at least two of the recall elections targeting Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald supported the move, saying Tuesday it was a legitimate tool available to Republicans to give their senators more time to campaign.
Republicans have accused the Government Accountability Board of being partisan since it already approved the recalls against the Republicans but received a court delay in its consideration of the Democratic recalls. Attorneys for the board said they needed more time to prepare for the challenges to the Democratic petitions because the allegations of fraud were much more complicated and broad than those raised in the Republican petitions.
The board, which regulates elections and campaign finance, is officially nonpartisan and comprised of six retired judges. Potential members of the board are nominated by a panel of randomly selected appeals court judges and then selected by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)