The Politics of Scheduling

Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wausau)

By Jim Ellis

Oct. 4, 2019 — Earlier, it was reported that Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) is going to re-schedule the special election to replace resigned Congressman Sean Duffy (R-Wausau), and now we have more information.

At first glance, we see an instance where a state election law conflicts with a federal statute, which national government officials apparently brought to the governor’s attention after he made public the original voting schedule. Wisconsin special election law creates a 28-day period between special primary and general, while the federal MOVE Act, designed to provide some uniform structure for overseas and military voters stationed abroad, mandates at least 45 days be placed between elections.

The governor is reportedly looking at two scenarios, and both will move the special cycle to a much later time frame. Instead of Jan. 27, the original special general date (the special primary was slated for Dec. 30), the new general will likely either be concurrent with the April 7 presidential and statewide primary, or May 5. Due to the federal law requirements and the current state election calendar, the governor cannot schedule both the special primary and general to coincide with the already-set state election timetable.

Now for the politics: Wisconsin has a regular statewide election in the early part of the even-numbered year where judges and many local officials are elected in addition to other selected officeholder positions. In this particular April 7 election, the same day as the presidential primary, Republican state Supreme Court Judge Dan Kelly is running for a full 10-year term. Key Democratic leaders counseled the governor to schedule the election early so a large Republican turnout from a strong Republican congressional district did not hurt the party’s effort to unseat the high court judge.

On the other hand, Democratic turnout is likely to be very large on April 7 because voters are coming to participate in the presidential primary. Using this reasoning, the Democrats’ chances of upsetting the GOP in the special congressional election would be much greater even though the seat has performed well for the Republicans throughout this decade.

Since the Democrats don’t yet have a candidate in the congressional race, it is likely Gov. Evers will listen to the group who wants him to schedule the special on a day other than the statewide primary. Should he do so, the most probable election calendar would be a Feb. 18 primary and May 5 stand-alone special general election.

At this point, Republicans have three announced congressional candidates, two of whom appear credible. The third, businessman and hobby farmer Michael Opela will not likely threaten either state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) or Afghanistan Purple Heart veteran Jason Church, a former aide to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) who lost both his legs in battle.

In a statement about the scheduling situation, the two active candidates took different approaches. Sen. Tiffany indicated that “it is imperative that all military and overseas voters have the opportunity to vote,” and further said he is prepared to win whenever the election is calendared.

But Church took a different approach, swiping at the governor in saying that “Evers’ political motivations have resulted in chaos and uncertainty for voters.”

Whatever his decision, Gov. Evers is likely to move quickly. He announced his original schedule the day Rep. Duffy officially resigned, so if that action is any indication we won’t have to wait long for his response.

After the MOVE Act was passed in Congress and earned the president’s signature, the Wisconsin legislature took action to bring their regular elections into compliance. They did not, however, change the special election statutes; hence, creating the logistical problem that has sidetracked filling this northwestern Wisconsin congressional vacancy.

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