MADISON, Wis. (CN) - A group of Wisconsinites backed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder claims Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s refusal to hold special elections for two vacant state legislative seats violates their right to vote and be represented.
The eight voters supported by Holder, now chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, filed a lawsuit Monday against Walker in Dane County Circuit Court. They are represented by lead attorney David Anstaett with Perkins Coie in Madison, Wis.
“Governor Walker’s refusal to promptly issue writs of election has already deprived plaintiffs of representation for the first seven weeks of 2018, and that substantial injury will continue unless and until Governor Walker is ordered to comply with his clear legal duty to call a special election to fill the vacancies,” the 11-page complaint states.
The two seats at issue became vacant last December when two Republican state lawmakers – Representative Keith Ripp from Assembly District 42 and Senator Frank Lasee from Senate District 1 – resigned to work for Walker’s administration.
The voters say 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, has 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.
If a judge doesn’t order Walker to call special elections, the eight voters suing him say they will not be able to elect new representatives until the next general election on Nov. 6 and the winning candidates would not be sworn in until Jan. 7, 2019.
“Unless and until Governor Walker is compelled to do his legal duty, the voters in Assembly District 42 and Senate District 1 will remain unrepresented for over a year,” according to the complaint. (Emphasis in original.)
Holder served as attorney general in former President Barack Obama’s administration. As head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, or NDRC, he 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.
An affiliate of Holder’s group, the National Redistricting Foundation, said Monday that it was behind the lawsuit.
“Governor Scott Walker’s refusal to hold special elections is an affront to representative democracy,” Holder said in a statement. “Forcing citizens to go more than a year without representation in the state legislature is a plain violation of their rights and we’re hopeful the court will act quickly to order the governor to hold elections.”
Governor Walker’s spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said his decision is “consistent with the law.”
"Voters are already going to the polls this year to elect new representatives in these districts. This D.C.-based special interest group wants to force Wisconsin taxpayers to waste money," Hasenberg said in a statement. "The Legislature will be adjourned for 2018 before these seats could be filled in special elections, and staff in these offices are working for constituents until new leaders are elected."
The group of Wisconsinites suing the governor disagrees and wants a judge to declare that Walker’s refusal to call special elections violates Wisconsin law, and issue an emergency writ of mandamus ordering him to call the elections.
The Wisconsin State Assembly held a final session last week and the Senate is scheduled to meet one more time on March 20 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 last month and likely see two more special elections as an opportunity to gain traction.
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.
The plaintiffs’ legal team includes Democratic attorney Marc Elias, who worked as general counsel for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. The team did not immediately respond to an email request for comment Tuesday.
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