- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The leader of Wisconsin’s nonpartisan elections board wants legislative leaders to slow down plans to overhaul the panel’s operations, saying implementing reforms now could have serious consequences for administering the 2016 races.

Government Accountability Board Chairman Gerald Nichol sent a letter Tuesday to Republican and Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate saying now’s not the time to make wholesale changes. The board is gearing up to implement voter photo identification requirements as well as finishing a major upgrade to the statewide voter registration system and both projects will require the board to provide extensive training to clerks and election workers, he said.

The board also will have to launch major training efforts for local officials if lawmakers follow through with their promises to amend Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws, he said.

What’s more, uncertainty about the board’s future has led to “an exodus” of staffers that will make it difficult to support local election officials and review nomination papers heading into the elections, he said. GAB spokesman Reid Magney said in a Wednesday email to The Associated Press that seven or eight employees have left since May 2014 at least in part due to questions about the board’s fate.

“The public and the agency’s customers will not be well-served by rushing through a sweeping reorganization at this point in the election cycle,” Nichol wrote. “The people of the state of Wisconsin need to have confidence that the 2016 elections will be handled by the capable, professional staff currently in place.”

The board, which oversees Wisconsin elections and administers its ethics laws, is comprised of six nonpartisan judges. Republicans who control the Legislature are upset with the board on a number of fronts, including how it handled recall elections in 2010 and 2011 and its ballot designs. They’re especially angry with the board for helping Milwaukee prosecutors investigate Gov. Scott Walker’s former aides and whether his recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups.

Republicans have been contemplating legislation to re-structure the board for months. GOP leaders said Wednesday they’ve finalized the bill and plan to release it next week.

Spokeswomen for both Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t immediately respond to emails Wednesday seeking details about what’s in the bill. The proposal’s chief architect, Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, also didn’t return a voicemail message.

Vos has said he envisions splitting the board into two panels. One would handle elections, the other ethics violations. Both would be made up of partisan appointees. Vos has said at least the board members’ biases would be clear and out in the open.

Nichol, a member of the GAB since it was created in 2008, wrote in his letter that accusations that the board has grown too political are unfair. He said the board makes its decisions according to the law.

Still, he acknowledged the Legislature can do whatever it wants. He suggested lawmakers keep the current board structure but appoint two non-voting partisans who could advocate for their parties’ positions and give the Legislature a report on the board’s internal procedures.

Spokeswomen for Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, responded to a request for comment Wednesday by saying only that they’ve finalized the bill.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said he supports Nichol’s suggestions to slow the bill down. He said Republicans want to turn the board into partisan lapdogs and a commission should study any changes before they’re implemented.

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