Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Elections Board To Locals: Break The Law

A state law protecting voter privacy is the latest car to join the crumpled heap that is the train wreck known as SVRS, bureaucratic shorthand for Statewide Voter Registration System. SVRS is being developed under the state's contract with the global outsourcing firm Accenture LLP to develop a computerized voter registration list.

Elections Board and Accenture officials have taken great pains to justify the eye-popping $14 million price tag on the contract by saying the company is developing computer software tailor-made for registering voters in Wisconsin. The Democracy Campaign reported last October that the Accenture software didn't appear to be as customized as advertised. Accenture's off-the-shelf program contained data fields for things like party affiliation and whether a voter owns property, even though such voter information is not collected under Wisconsin law and is incompatible with voter registration practices in the state. Those data fields have been deactivated.

But now the Democracy Campaign has discovered that the Elections Board is instructing local election officers to ignore the state law spelling out what voter information is confidential. In a July 21 memo, the board says the registration identification number assigned to each voter "is not treated as confidential" and "is a public record and must be provided upon request" by individuals and organizations with an interest in having access to elector information stored in the database.

The problem with the Elections Board's position is that it is against state law. Section 6.36(1)(b) of Wisconsin's statutes says no person "other than an employee of the board, a municipal clerk, a deputy clerk, an executive director of a city board of election commissioners, or a deputy designated by the executive director" may view voter registration identification numbers.

It appears that Accenture did not take into account the specifics of Wisconsin's election laws and failed to tailor the software programming to the state's laws and needs, and it appears the Elections Board failed to supervise Accenture's development of the software in order to make certain the purchased voter registration software complied with all applicable Wisconsin laws.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Law Is The Law

Wisconsin law limits the amount of money candidates for governor can take from special interest political action committees (PACs) to $485,000 in a four-year election cycle. When Green Bay-area Republican Congressman Mark Green decided to run for governor, he wanted to transfer $1.3 million he raised as a member of Congress from his federal campaign account to a state account to help finance his bid for governor.

The Democracy Campaign has long opposed allowing federal office holders to use money raised for federal campaigns in order to run for state office. We opposed Democrat Tom Barrett's transfer of money he raised as a member of Congress to help finance his 2002 run for the state's highest office. It was wrong when Barrett did it, and it's wrong for Green to do it.

Such transfers will not be allowed after 2006 because a rule pushed by the Democracy Campaign was adopted by the state Elections Board last year outlawing the practice for future races, but the board grandfathered Green's plans to use funds from his federal campaign in this year's gubernatorial race. But while the Elections Board blessed a Green transfer, it also ruled that any federal money he uses for his state campaign must comply with state contribution limits and other state campaign finance laws.

The Legislature's Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules objected to the Elections Board rule, but the full Legislature never enacted legislation reversing it before adjourning on July 12, as it is required to do to nullify a rule. After consulting with attorneys with the Legislative Council, the state Revisor of Statutes office and the Elections Board, we believe the rule remains in effect.

The state limit on PAC contributions to a candidate for governor is $485,000. Green transferred $511,405 in PAC donations from his federal account to the state account he's using to fuel his campaign for governor. He also has raised another $156,140 from PACs since launching his state campaign, bringing his total PAC contributions to $667,545. That's $182,545 over the legal limit in state law.

The limit on PAC donations in state law is there for a good reason – to protect the public. The public has a compelling interest in preventing special interests from having too much influence over elections and elected officials. The Green campaign is operating under the assumption that the $511,000 in PAC money transferred in from the congressman's federal account does not count toward the state limit. Green believes he still can raise $485,000 from PACs over and above what he moved from his federal campaign fund. If the law is not enforced and Mark Green is allowed to operate as he sees fit, he will be allowed to take just shy of $1 million in PAC money from special interest groups.

The first casualty of Green's maneuver was Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who for a time was a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor. Green's federal money gave him such a fundraising advantage that Walker pulled out, saying he could not raise enough money to compete.

Think about it. This race was too rich for Scott Walker's blood. If someone as well-known, well-connected and well-heeled as Walker can't afford to compete, then who can?

Scott Walker is the proverbial canary in a coal mine. His withdrawal was a warning of how toxic to our democracy the campaign money chase has become.

Walker was the first casualty of Green's money shifting. If the law is not enforced and the state limit on PAC contributions is not respected, the next casualty will be what little remains of longstanding protections guarding against special interest ownership of our state government.

Monday, July 10, 2006

AG Candidates On Open Government

For those who feel strongly about our state's open records and open meetings laws check out the responses by some of the Democratic and Republican attorney general candidates to questions posed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

Unfortunately, Republican candidate Paul Bucher did not bother to respond even after numerous requests. Maybe people should start asking Bucher if he thinks open government is a big deal, seeing as how he could be Wisconsin's next top cop.