Enhancing Fairness: Wisconsin Experiments with Nonpartisan Election Administration, 2001 – 2016


In the wake of a 2001 scandal over the use of government employees to assist political campaigns, public interest groups in the US state of Wisconsin pushed for reform of the state ethics and elections boards, which had been slow to respond to complaints about misuse of resources and had declined to refer suspected lawbreakers for prosecution. During the 2002 election period, gubernatorial candidates of both main parties joined the call to insulate election administration from partisan pressure. Five years of negotiation came to fruition in 2007, when the state senate and assembly voted to create a consolidated election and ethics agency directed by retired judges. The first nonpartisan election administration authority of its type in the United States, the new agency, called the Government Accountability Board, replaced a system that had vested governance of elections in a commission made up of members of both major parties. But eight years later, political alignments shifted. Arguing that the board had overreached in its handling of certain sensitive cases, state legislators in 2015 voted to shutter the institution and reverted to the pre-2007 system run by representatives of the two major political parties. This case illuminates both the circumstances that can drive politicians to introduce a nonpartisan election management system and the challenges associated with the design, implementation, and sustainability of the approach. (Note that the lead reformer in this case, Michael G. Ellis, died in 2018.)  

Daniel Dennehy and staff drafted this case study based on interviews conducted in the United States from August through November 2022. Case published February 2023.

institutional independence
political polarization
electoral management body
complaints process
elections commission
Focus Area(s)
Critical Tasks
Consensus building
Establishing independence
Independent agencies
Legal framework
Vote counting
Voter registration
Core Challenge
Trust and legitimacy
Country of Reform
United States
Case Studies
Daniel Dennehy