GOP calls for secretary of state special election, but state law doesn’t require it

By: - March 22, 2023 6:00 am

Entrance to Senate Chambers in the Wisconsin State Capitol. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Pushing back on Gov. Tony Evers’ appointment of former State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski to fill the Wisconsin Secretary of State’s office for the next four years, the state Senate’s GOP leaders will hold a vote Wednesday on a resolution calling on Evers to hold a special election instead.

Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette | Official Photo
Former Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette | Official Photo

The resolution, coauthored by the two top leaders each in the Senate and the Assembly, follows Friday’s abrupt resignation of Doug La Follette less than three months into his 12th term in the post after he was reelected in November.

Evers announced La Follette’s resignation and his appointment of Godlewski, Wisconsin state treasurer from 2019 through the end of 2022, to serve as secretary of state Friday morning.

Late Friday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) denounced the decision. “This suggests a pre-meditated action to award the power of incumbency to a partisan ally. It is an insult to voters of Wisconsin and our democratic process,” he said in a statement that urged Evers to call a special election to fill the post instead.

Monday, LeMahieu, along with Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) introduced a resolution to that effect.

Senate Joint Resolution 21 “calls on Governor Tony Evers to exercise his powers under section 8.50 (4) (c) of the Wisconsin Statutes and call an immediate special election to fill the vacancy in the Office of Secretary of State.” The Senate leaders put the resolution on Wednesday’s floor session schedule.

In the November 2022 election, the closest ever since La Follette began his tenure as secretary of state four decades ago, Republican challenger Amy Loudenbeck came within 7,000 votes of winning.

State law doesn’t appear to require a special election, however, says Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Barry Burden, professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Elections Research Center
Barry Burden, political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the UW-Madison (photo: UW-Madison)

Statute 17.19 states that the governor gets to appoint replacements whenever there is a vacancy [in an elected office] and the replacements serve until an election is held,” Burden says. “That could be the regular election at the end of the term or until a special election is held.”

The statute says that for secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general or state superintendent, a vacancy is filled “by appointment by the governor, and a person so appointed shall hold office until a successor is elected, as provided in [statute] 8.50, and qualifies, but if no such election is held, the person so appointed shall hold office for the residue of the unexpired term.”

Statute 8.50,  which governs special elections, specifies when they “shall” be held for a number of offices, primarily seats in the state Legislature, in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate.

But 8.50(4)(c), which refers to vacancies for the attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and superintendent of public instruction, “indicates that a governor ‘may’ hold a special election, but it does not seem to be required,” Burden says.

Nevertheless, Burden adds, “It is obviously unusual for a candidate who was just elected to a four-year term to resign two months after inauguration and for a replacement to serve essentially all of that term.”

At a news conference Tuesday, Evers rejected the suggestion from the state Republican party that La Follette’s abrupt resignation and Godlewski’s appointment to succeed him were cooked up when Godlewski dropped out of the Democratic U.S. Senate primary race less than two weeks before the election.

Evers said he first learned of La Follette’s plan to retire “last Tuesday, or whenever the letter was written,” and that he spoke with Godlewski “for the first time on this issue last Wednesday.”

He said he appointed her “because her previous position in the state intersected significantly with Doug.” As state treasurer Godlewski sat on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands with La Follette, “which is a really important part of that job,” Evers added. “And so she will be a perfect fit for that [in the secretary of state’s office]. And that’s why I appointed her.”

Evers noted that when he first took office as governor and resigned his post as state superintendent, he appointed his replacement for the balance of that term.

“Why did I not hear [similar objections] when I appointed Carolyn Stanford Taylor as state superintendent of public instruction, which I would argue is even a more high profile job than secretary of state?” Evers asked.

He and La Follette spoke very rarely, and the secretary of state departed because he was “sick of this stuff,” Evers said. “He left, I appointed [a] completely competent person to do the work. And that’s the story.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.