FOX 11 Investigates: Costs of special elections


(WLUK) -- Clerks across two Wisconsin legislative districts have been working overtime trying to gear up for special elections.

“It was a surprise. A surprise election is what we call it,” said Town of Green Bay clerk Debbie Mercier.

The town, with about 1,300 registered voters, lies within the 1st Senate District. The district covers Door and Kewaunee counties and parts of Brown, Outagamie, Manitowoc and Calumet counties. That 1st District, along with the 42nd Assembly District north of Madison, became vacant in late-December.

Gov. Scott Walker appointed State Sen. Frank Lasee and State Rep. Keith Ripp to jobs in his administration.

Walker did not immediately call for a special election. Instead, he planned to fill the seats in the regular fall elections.

During a recent event in Ashwaubenon, Walker explained to FOX 11 that he decided to wait was because by the time the special election could be held, lawmakers would be out of session.

“The Legislature will be fully adjourned since the beginning of April, so you're going to elect people to a position that isn't going to take any action until January of next year,” Walker said.

Democrats challenged Walker's decision in court and won, forcing the governor to call the special elections.

State Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, criticized the governor for not calling the special elections sooner.

“It should've been in April. He screwed up and now we're having it in May and June,” Hansen said.

How much will this all end up costing taxpayers? No one knows the exact dollar figure. But according to the state it could end up costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Because of the timing and the expected turnout, election officials say the special elections will be similar in cost to regular spring elections.

The elections commission provided FOX 11 with data from both districts for the 2017 spring election.

The general election alone that year cost municipalities an estimated $306,605.93.

As for the special elections, in the Town of Green Bay, Mercier says the elections will cost about $2,000 for the primary and another $2,000 for the general election.

When asked where the money will come from, Mercier replied, “Well, it wasn't budgeted so it's going to have to come out of our expenses somehow.”

Counties play a major role in the election, too.

Brown County clerk Sandy Juno says the county will spend a total of $18,060 for the two special elections.

When asked if this is money the county planned to spend this year, Juno replied, “No, definitely not.”

“Nobody wants to do a special election because of the work involved and the number of dollars it takes to conduct a special election, “she added.

“Special elections are costly and time consuming,” said Kewaunee County clerk Jamie Annoye.

Annoye told FOX 11 Investigates she doesn't know exactly how much the special elections will cost her office. But she expects it to be like the spring elections that were just held.

“In February and April, it was just under $33-thousand dollars for two elections here,” Annoye said.

While communities across the state are stuck with the bill, Walker says the special elections are unnecessary.

“The reality is we're going to elect, we're going to hold, spend a couple hundreds of thousands of dollars on two elections to be held so that these individuals can be in office for a position that doesn't meet until January,” Walker said.

Hansen says instead of keeping seats vacant, perhaps the Legislature should make some changes.

“Maybe we should revisit the possibility that a legislative session should not end, in the case of the Assembly in February or March or the State Senate will end in March and not be recalled until the middle of January. Maybe that's just wrong,” Hansen said.

In the meantime, the voting continues and clerks say they'll simply do what they were elected to do

“As a clerk, it's one of my primary duties so obviously, the elections go on,” Mercier said.

“They want a voice in that seat and that's ultimately why it was decided and it's our job to make sure the election is done right and done well so that's what we'll do,” Annoye said.

Republican lawmakers in Madison had planned to call a special session to change the election law, but then abandoned that effort for now. It could be brought up again in the future.

Voters in the two districts will head to the polls again for the special election on June 12th. The seats will be on the ballot again just two months later for the regular August primary.