-By Tom Tolan, Patrick Marley and Jason Stein
June 8, 2011- Madison – The state Government Accountability Board voted Wednesday to set recall elections for three Democratic state senators, bringing to nine the number of senators facing recall elections.
The board acknowledged Democrats' claims of fraud by paid petition circulators, but disallowed only about 230 additional signatures collected by just one of the circulators – not nearly enough to throw out any of the recalls.
Democrats Dave Hansen of Green Bay, Jim Holperin of Conover and Robert Wirch of Pleasant Prairie all face elections July 19, a week after six Republican senators face recalls. The election date for the Republicans was set last week.
The decision Wednesday came as some of the Republicans said they opposed a costly plan by the GOP to run protest candidates that would create Democratic primaries and delay the general election for a month.
All six Republicans have sued to stop the recalls. Democratic attorney Jeremy Levinson said he didn't know yet if any of the three Democrats would sue, too. The court action could delay or cancel the elections.
The Government Accountability Board's decision came after the board, made up of six former judges, heard from Levinson and Eric McLeod, lawyer for the Republicans. The board also questioned its own staff attorney, Shane Falk, at length over what the board's staff recommended.
Levinson told board members that Democrats' challenge to the recall campaigns constituted the "most robust, well-resourced petition verification that's ever been done," a process that turned up "massive and systemic fraud, and non-fraud defects, that permeate the petitions in all three districts."
McLeod disputed that, saying the three Democrats themselves were "perpetrating fraud on the board," and he called Levinson's accusations of fraud "empty rhetoric."
Levinson's evidence wasn't enough to throw out entire pages of signatures, much less any of petition campaigns themselves, McLeod said. He told the board it couldn't create rules not spelled out by the Legislature for throwing out petitions based on a few instances of misrepresentation by one circulator.
Falk later told the board that its job was to balance the will of the electors against the integrity of the recall process. "But at a certain point," he added, "the will of electorate can't be determined" if there's so much fraud that many signatures are bogus.
He also cast doubt on Democrats' efforts to have many petition pages thrown out because of problems with circulators' statement of their residence. The word nomadic has been used several times to describe the circulators, and Falk said such issues weren't sufficient to toss out the circulators' pages. The board went along with that and didn't throw out any signatures based on the residence issues.
It did throw out some of the signatures associated with one of the circulators – Sherri Ferrell, who was accused of misrepresenting the purpose of the petitions she was getting people to sign against Hansen and Holperin. Among the misrepresentations Democrats said she made were that the purpose of the petitions was to "support Indians," "support schools" and "support Democrats."
The recall efforts against the three Democrats and the six Republicans, came out of the fighting in Madison over Gov. Scott Walker's budget initiatives this year.
Asked what the next move was, Gillian Morris, a Democratic Party spokeswoman, said she was disappointed in the board's decision but certain the Democrats would win their recall elections.
"I'm confident that voters of Wisconsin will support senators who stand up for working families and seniors," Morris said.