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Wisconsin GOP Looks to Overhaul Government Accountability Board

The GAB is tasked with ensuring fair elections

Now that the Wisconsin Legislature has wrapped up its budget work, Republican leaders are setting their sights on a new goal — overhauling the state’s Government Accountability Board.

It’s the non-partisan board tasked with overseeing elections and political ethics. Its leader, Kevin Kennedy, has have come under fire recently after redesigning the ballot – some believe it gave Democrats an advantage, and for approving a John Doe investigation into Gov. Walker’s 2012 recall campaign. An anonymous article in the Wall Street Journalis prompting renewed calls for change.

Wisconsin created its Government Accountability Board in 2008 to combine and replace the old State Elections and State Ethics Boards. The change came on the heels of a caucus scandal when legislators of both parties were accused of illegal campaign activities. The GAB was hailed as a non-partisan agency that would put teeth behind laws and improve public perception. But GOP Representative John Nygren insists perception has not improved. 

“If there’s doubt in the public about an agency that works for them to supposedly protect and produce honest and fair elections, if there is doubt I think there is a reason for concern and a reason for us to be taking a look at how they’re doing their current, fulfilling their current responsibilities,” Nygren says. 

Nygren says the GAB has given people reasons to be skeptical.

“The main focuses of that call that came back a few months ago when there was a legislative audit done by a nonpartisan agency that works for the legislature that found a number of shortcomings in the existing Government Accountability Board,” Nygren says.

Nygren say those shortcomings include taking years to determine if felons voted and if there were problems with voting machines.

He says an article in the Wall Street Journal has now raised additional doubt. It hints that leaders of the IRS and GAB have connections, and have been targeting conservatives in looking for wrongdoing. Nygren says he doesn’t yet know what a better model would look like, but he’s sure Republicans will come up with one.

The Wisconsin GAB is a model for the country, according to Mike McCabe. He’s president of Blue Jean Nation, a political watchdog group. McCabe says the board is performing as it should.

“The GAB was set up to be politically independent. It was set up to be an impartial umpire. And over the years, sometimes the umpire has ticked off the Democrats and sometimes it’s ticked off the Republicans. To me, that’s the way it should me,” McCabe says.

McCabe says the push to overhaul the GAB is about nothing more than Republicans wanting more control.

“What you have now are legislative leaders who feel like if the agency does something they don’t care for they’d like to change the agency and make it less politically independent. They would like to have this agency under their thumb,” McCabe says.

The GAB’s executive director is Kevin Kennedy. Its members are retired Wisconsin judges. 

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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