America’s Top Model: The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board

Daniel P. Tokaji, America’s Top Model: The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (2013) (forthcoming U.C. Irvine Law Review), available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2201587.

Abstract:  The United States is an outlier among democratic countries when it comes to the institutions charged with running our elections. Most other democratic countries have an independent election authority that enjoys some insulation from partisan politics in running elections. In the United States, by contrast, partisan election administration is the near-universal norm at the state level. In most states, the chief election authority — usually the Secretary of State — is elected to office as a nominee of his or her party, while in almost all the remaining states the chief election official is appointed by partisan officials.

There is one conspicuous exception to the partisan character of election administration at the state level: Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board (“GAB”). Established by the Wisconsin state legislature in 2007, the GAB has responsibility for election administration, as well as enforcement of campaign finance, ethics, and lobbying laws. Its members are former judges chosen in manner that is designed to ensure that they will not favor either major party. This makes the GAB unique among state election management bodies in the U.S.

Is there any hope for nonpartisan election administration in an era of intense political polarization? This article considers this question by examining and assessing the performance of Wisconsin’s GAB. It concludes that the GAB has been successful in administering elections evenhandedly during its first five years of existence and, accordingly, that it serves as a worthy model for other states considering alternatives to partisan election administration at the state level. Part II discusses the origins and history of the GAB, putting it in the context of other electoral institutions in the U.S., as well as electoral institutions in other democratic countries. Part III discusses the most important election administration issues that have come before the Wisconsin GAB since its creation, including fierce partisan debates over voter registration and voter identification, errant reporting of election results in a very close state supreme court race, and contentious recall elections of the Governor and prominent state legislators. Part IV concludes by evaluating the GAB’s performance during these trying times and considering whether the Wisconsin model can and should be exported to other states.

To download a full version of the article, click here.

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