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Committee to take comments on special elections bill

Capitol in Madison

MADISON — Wisconsin lawmakers were set to take public comments Wednesday on a bill that would eliminate requirements that the governor promptly call special elections to fill legislative vacancies.

The bill would prohibit special elections from being held after the spring election in years that have fall legislative elections. It also would allow special election candidates to campaign longer and remove the requirement that only U.S. citizens can act as witnesses to casting a military or overseas ballot. Wisconsin is currently the only state that requires such witnesses be U.S. citizens. The bill also would allow temporary overseas voters to receive absentee ballots electronically.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, state Elections Commission attorney Michael Hass and Matt Rothschild, executive director of watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, all were expected to address the panel.

Fitzgerald introduced the bill Monday after Dane County Circuit Judge Josann Reynolds ordered Walker to call special elections to replace state Rep. Keith Ripp and Sen. Frank Lasee by Thursday. The two Republicans resigned in December to join Walker’s administration.

Current state law requires Walker to call special elections to fill vacancies that occur before early May of an election year but he has refused to schedule the contests. A Democratic group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sued to force the elections, spurring Reynolds’ order.

Fitzgerald has argued that holding special elections only months before regular ones would confuse voters and waste tax dollars. He also has argued that overseas and military voters won’t be able to receive and return ballots for so many elections.

Walker has already pledged to sign the bill.

Democrats and other bill opponents maintain that Walker is trying to delay elections in the two districts because he senses a groundswell of Democratic momentum in the state. Democrat Patty Schachtner in January defeated Republican Rep. Adam Jarchow in a special election for an open seat in a deeply red northwestern Wisconsin state Senate district. Walker called Schachtner’s win a wake-up call for Republicans.

The state Department of Justice, which is representing Walker in the court case, notified the 2nd District Court of Appeals on Wednesday that it would appeal Reynolds’ ruling.