Leaders call Legislature back to discuss special elections

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans refused Friday to accept a court order to hold special elections to fill two vacant legislative seats, calling lawmakers back to Madison to rewrite election laws in an extraordinary session.

Legislators returned to their districts to campaign this week after the Senate and Assembly wrapped up their two-year sessions. But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a joint news release the court order means special elections and regular elections for the open seats will occur simultaneously, confusing voters and wasting tax dollars. The Legislature must reconvene to revise special election statutes, they said.

They didn't specify what changes they want, saying only that they want to "clean up" the laws and ensure they comply with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. Fitzgerald mentioned during a question-and-answer session with reporters that he's concerned military voters won't be able to obtain and return ballots for so many elections and special elections should be aligned with regular ones.

"The logistics of this (ruling) are very messy," Fitzgerald said. "We still have an opportunity to straighten this out at the last minute here."

Gov. Scott Walker said in a statement that it would be senseless to waste tax dollars on simultaneous elections for the same seats. He promised he would sign the Legislature's plan into law, an unusual announcement given that specifics are murky and the governor rarely commits publicly to signing bills.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said in a statement that Republicans were throwing a "temper tantrum" because they lost in court and fear the open seats could flip to Democratic control.

"Republicans are clearly intimidated by the thought of losing power and would rather create chaos and confusion going into a tough re-election year," Shilling said.

Sen. Frank Lasee and Rep. Keith Ripp, both Republicans, left the Legislature in December to join Walker's administration. Wisconsin law says the governor must call special elections to fill legislative vacancies that occur before the second Tuesday in May in an election year. But Walker refused to call the elections, arguing those statutes apply only if vacancies occur after Jan. 1 of an election year.

Democrats contend Walker wants to delay the elections because the GOP could lose the seats. Republicans hold an all-but insurmountable 63-35 Assembly majority but their margin in the Senate is 18-14.

A national Democratic group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sued to force the special elections. Dane County Circuit Judge Josann Reynolds ordered Walker on Thursday to schedule the elections by March 29, calling the governor's position "textbook voter disenfranchisement."

Fitzgerald denied any attempts to slow down or halt the special elections during his question-and-answer session, saying Republicans just want elections to work.

Holder issued a news release pointing out that Lasee and Ripp's constituents have gone unrepresented since December because of Walker. He said the call to revise the election statutes was "stunning."

"(Republicans) appear to be afraid of the voters of Wisconsin," Holder said.

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