Series: Special Elections And Legislative Vacancies

When a member of the Wisconsin Legislature vacates the office before their term ends, the governor has the power to call a special election to fill that seat. Data shows that governors over the past five decades have generally acted promptly to fill vacancies. That pattern continued well into Gov. Scott Walker's administration until the final days of 2017, when he declined to call special elections for two open seats and leave them open until the November 2018 election to let voters choose new officeholders. A WisContext investigation of state elections records showed that a vacancy of such length was unprecedented in modern Wisconsin history.
 
The last week of March brought an exhausting whirlwind to Wisconsin's courts and statehouse as Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican allies fought against calling special elections in two vacant state legislative districts and sought to quickly rewrite a portion of state's elections law.
Over the course of three months, a seemingly mundane state personnel matter snowballed into a string of inaction and action across all three branches of government that was unprecedented in Wisconsin's political landscape.
If a voter in Wisconsin sues the state to try and compel the governor to call a special election, they might have a hard time finding precedent for that action.
Newton v. Walker concerns some fundamental questions of state law, and courts may have to wade into some uncharted territory to settle them.
How vacant state legislative seats get filled seems to have long been a hairy question — that is, when people think much about it at all.
When debating Gov. Scott Walker's decision to not call special elections to fill two vacancies in the Wisconsin Legislature, state political figures and commentators have argued over the move's implications elections law, public spending and democracy itself. But what about precedent?
An investigation of 105 special elections in Wisconsin since 1971, as well as 45 legislative vacancies not filled through special elections over the same time period, indicates that it's pretty normal for governors to call them swiftly and without much fuss. But Gov. Scott Walker is challenging that norm with a recent decision.