GOP plans for secretary of state echo national push for elections control

Republicans who undercut La Follette’s powers for years look to reverse course

By: - December 2, 2021 6:27 am
Secretary of State Doug La Follette is sworn in by Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack. The inauguration ceremony at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Jan. 7, 2019. Tony Evers, a Democrat, was sworn in as Wisconsin’s 46th governor. Also sworn in were Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Attorney General Josh Kaul, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Secretary of State Doug La Follette. CC BY-ND 2.0

Secretary of State Doug La Follette is sworn in by Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack. on Jan. 7, 2019. CC BY-ND 2.0

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) announced Wednesday that she is running for secretary of state to empower an office she previously voted to gut. If she wins, she says she will seek to give the office the power to oversee elections, a goal other Republicans nationwide have been pursuing.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck

In announcing her candidacy, Loudenbeck accused current Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette of being out of the public eye in an office in the Capitol basement and of doing little to serve the citizens of the state. She did not note it was Republicans, herself included, who stripped La Follette of many of his responsibilities and banished him to the basement six years ago over his vociferous objections.

She said that giving a partisan secretary of state oversight of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) would restore confidence in elections, something citizens groups pushing for nonpartisan election reform dispute.

Loudenbeck told The Wheeler Report, in a lengthy interview on her candidacy that it “would be a good opportunity for the office … to be a check on WEC. There’s a lot of talk about election integrity. Lots of other states, that’s what their secretary of state does. That’s their primary chief election officer and that’s their primary function.”

Making it clear she would not want to give the current, Democratic secretary of state that power, she added, “in the event the Legislature wanted to consider doing something or at least bringing in an accountable person, it’s not going to happen unless that person has a relationship with the Legislature … I don’t even think we could have the conversation about it until there was someone new in that office … If I were in the office, maybe we could have those conversations.”

The move to draw attention — and Republican candidates — to the office of secretary of state in order to gain greater control over elections and their outcomes, is a national push backed by former president Donald Trump.

Loudenbeck is not the only Republican running in Wisconsin to float the idea of giving the secretary of state power over elections. (Nationwide around half of the states already have a secretary of state charged with some election oversight.)

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Trump and his supporters, who have been seeking to overturn and delegitimize the 2020 election, have turned some of their attention toward looking to control offices — most notably secretaries of state — that would give them greater oversight and say over who wins elections at state and local levels by allowing them to overturn or influence election results.

The Post interviewed Jay Schroeder, another Wisconsin Republican secretary of state candidate, who told the newspaper that despite a mountain of proof in court cases and audits, he doesn’t believe President Joe Biden won Wisconsin. He said in an interview: “We need to investigate to see if he won,” he said. “This is what I can’t understand: If someone wants to have an audit, and you think there is nothing there, why wouldn’t you let them do it?”

Seizing La Follette’s power

The new push for giving more power to the secretary of state comes after years of whittling down the office’s authority, culminating in its 2015 gutting by the GOP.

In 2013, the Legislature stripped the secretary of state of his power to publish any bills, after La Follette memorably held off on publishing then-Gov. Scott Walker’s signature on Act 10, which stripped public-employee unions of collective bargaining power. His move drew sharp rebuke from the governor and GOP legislators because La Follette’s delay gave local governments and unions additional days to negotiate contracts before the bill was officially enacted.

“This is the biggest change in Wisconsin labor management history in 50 years,” La Follette said of his delay at the time.

While that stand-off may have augmented Walker’s dislike of the office, as a candidate in 2010, he proposed eliminating the position. Proposed legislation to begin that process never passed.

In 2015, Walker authored a budget to relegate the secretary of state and the state treasurer to the Capitol basement, cutting the former’s office space down to less than 900 square feet, a quarter of the previous office’s size. It was approved by Republicans — including Loudenbeck.

Pushing back after a letter failed to sway Walker, La Follette invited lawmakers and the press to come see the space, although only the media took him up on showing how inaccessible his new office would be to the public. Walker and GOP legislators also took even more duties away from the secretary of state, moving some record maintenance to the Department of Administration, while cutting the office budget in half and taking away two of his staff of four. In July, after the budget was signed, La Follette unsuccessfully sued Walker, arguing the cuts made it impossible to fulfill his obligations to the public.

Loudenbeck, despite voting to cut the office and move it to the basement, criticized La Follette — who has not decided if he will run for reelection in 2022 — and said her priority would be “to open the physical office to the public and start the process of updating services making them more business and citizen friendly,” according to the Wheeler write-up.

The office, which pays the secretary $72,551 annually and has a budget for the 2022 fiscal year of just $281,000, has no term limits. La Follette has held the post since 1983. He is second in line to the governor after the lieutenant governor. The office’s key duties involve record keeping and oversight for state government, a biennial report, control over the state seal, as well as a seat on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands.

In 2018, Democrats swept all five statewide constitutional offices, which include the state treasurer, governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Republicans have been proposing various changes ever since, including seizing powers in a lame duck session from Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul before they took the oath of office.

In another bid to potentially wrest control of statewide offices won by Democrats, Republican legislators Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton) and Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) introduced a proposal in September to amend the state constitution to make the secretary of state’s office, along with the state treasurer and the schools superintendent, offices that would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. (The Senate has been slow to confirm Evers’ appointments, with several agency heads still lacking approval three years into a four-year term.)

Those legislators also cited a paucity of duties for those offices, to which the GOP-controlled Legislature has taken an axe. The Republican effort to eliminate the state treasurer’s position in 2018 failed with more than 60% of voters rejecting the plan.

Some past duties of the secretary of state were moved to other state agencies before Walker and Republicans were in full control, including session law publication, which was moved to the Legislative Reference Bureau in 1991 and registration of businesses, which moved to the Department of Financial Institutions in 1995.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, in a statement on Loudenbeck’s resignation from the Assembly, gave her his endorsement: “Amy has been a real asset to the caucus, so on behalf of the Assembly Republican Caucus, I want to congratulate Amy on all she has accomplished during her time here in the Legislature and hope she will soon be the next Secretary of State.”

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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