Judge Orders Special Elections for Vacant Wisconsin Seats

FILE – In this Feb. 14, 2018, file photo, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, speaks to reporters in Madison, Wis. A state judge ruled Thursday, March 22, 2018, that he must call special elections for Wisconsin’s Assembly District 42 and Senate District 1. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer, File)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – A Wisconsin judge on Thursday ordered Governor Scott Walker to call special elections for two vacant state legislative seats by next week, ruling in favor of residents who claimed a violation of their right to vote and be represented.

Last month, a group of Wisconsinites backed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sued Walker in Dane County Circuit Court over the governor’s refusal to hold special elections in Wisconsin’s Assembly District 42 and Senate District 1.

The seats became vacant last December when two Republican state lawmakers – Representative Keith Ripp of Lodi and Senator Frank Lasee of De Pere – stepped down to join Walker’s administration.

The voters claimed that under state law, the governor “has a positive and plain legal duty to call special elections by promptly issuing writs of election to fill the vacancies” if they occur before the second Tuesday of May in an election year, which falls on May 8, 2018.

Walker, however, argued that the statute only applies to legislators who resign during an election year, and therefore doesn’t apply to Ripp and Lasee, who stepped down in 2017.

On Thursday, Dane County Judge Josann Reynolds, appointed to the bench by Walker in 2014, agreed with the group and ruled that the governor has an obligation under state law to hold special elections so voters can have proper representation in the Legislature.

The judge ordered Walker to schedule the special elections by March 29 after finding that he “has a plain and positive duty” to do so.

The eight voters suing Walker said if a judge didn’t order him to call special elections, they would “remain unrepresented for over a year” as they would have to wait until the next general election on Nov. 6 to elect new representatives and the winning candidates would not be sworn in until Jan. 7, 2019.

The group was supported by Holder, who has been piloting efforts to help Democrats win state elections nationally, ahead of the next round of redistricting in 2021 that will draw maps for national seats. He served as the first attorney general in former President Barack Obama’s administration and is now head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, or NDRC.

Holder expressed satisfaction with the ruling in an emailed statement.

“This is an important victory for the impacted citizens of Wisconsin who have gone without representation because of Governor Walker’s refusal to call special elections,” Holder said. “One of our most basic rights as American citizens is that we get to vote and have representation in our legislatures. Governor Walker’s actions have undermined that right and it never should have taken legal action to force him to do his job.”

Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said in a statement, “We are working with [the Wisconsin Department of Justice] to determine the next steps in this case.”

The plaintiffs’ legal team did not immediately respond to an email request for comment Friday.

Both the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate met one last time this week before wrapping up for the year.

Republicans have a 65-35 advantage in the Assembly and an 18-14 majority in the Senate. However, Democrats just won a seat in the state Senate in a special election earlier this year and likely see two more special elections as an opportunity to flip seats.

Assembly District 42 is north of the state capital of Madison and includes Columbia County and parts of Dane, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Green Lake and Marquette counties.

Senate District 1 in eastern Wisconsin includes portions of Brown, Calumet, Door, Kewaunee and Manitowoc counties.

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