Wisconsin Elections Commission split on who should lead it

January 24, 2018

Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Michael Haas says he will continue to serve in his job if he can even after the Republican-controlled state Senate voted to reject his confirmation on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Madison, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Elections Commission is split over whether to re-appoint its leader a day after the state Senate rejected his confirmation in order to oust him from the job.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted along party lines 18-13 on Tuesday to reject confirmation of both Elections administrator Michael Haas and Ethics Commission administrator Brian Bell. Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and other Republicans said they can’t trust them because both previously worked for a now-disbanded state agency that investigated Gov. Scott Walker and others in the GOP.

Elections Commission chairman Mark Thomsen said he believes the Senate vote does not remove Haas from his job running Wisconsin elections. But Thomsen said if the commission believes the Senate effectively fired him, he will then ask for them to reappoint him to the job as interim administrator at its Wednesday meeting.

“I’m hoping that we’ll figure out a way to keep Mike Haas at the wheel,” said Thomsen, a Democratic attorney.

But Republican commissioner Dean Knudson, a former Republican state representative, said he thinks the panel should move on from Haas. He intends to ask that the deputy administrator, Meagan Wolfe, be named as interim leader.

“The common sense, reasonable, professional way to go about this is we appoint an interim administrator from our current staff,” he said.

Thomsen said Republicans were putting the integrity of Wisconsin’s elections at risk by removing Haas. Wisconsin’s election system was unsuccessfully targeted by Russian hackers in 2016 and this year there are spring elections in February and April followed by the midterm primary in August and general election in November.

“I think Mr. Fitzgerald should end this witch hunt for Mr. Haas’ head, call a truce and get to the business of governing,” Thomsen said.

Fitzgerald did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. But on Tuesday he said he hoped the commission would deadlock 3-3, with all Republicans against the idea of re-appointing Haas to the job he’s been doing since mid-2016.

The bipartisan commission until now had been unified in supporting Haas continuing in his job.

Haas was notified shortly after the vote on Tuesday by the state Department of Administration that he was no longer elections administrator. The letter said he would return to his previous job as a staff attorney at the commission.

Thomsen said that demotion opens the state to a federal civil rights lawsuit. Other government watchdog groups have said they are considering filing lawsuits over the Senate vote to oust Bell and Haas.

But DOA spokesman Steve Michels said the agency sought guidance from the Department of Justice, which determined reappointing Haas to the administrator job would be invalid. If the commission did that, the job change would not be entered into the state system and Haas would not be paid the administrator’s $124,000 salary. He makes $94,161 as staff attorney.

The Ethics Commission planned to meet Thursday to discuss the hiring of an interim administrator. Commission chairman David Halbrooks declined to say whether it too would consider re-appointing Bell to his position.

Update hourly