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The Wisconsin Capitol isn't nearly large enough to house all state agencies. (AP) The Wisconsin Capitol isn't nearly large enough to house all state agencies. (AP)

The Wisconsin Capitol isn't nearly large enough to house all state agencies. (AP)

By Laura Schulte March 1, 2024

No, Wisconsin secretary of state doesn’t have to countersign new laws for them to take effect

If Your Time is short

  • The Wisconsin Constitution doesn’t mention the secretary of state countersigning bills

  • The Wisconsin State Statutes do mention countersigning, but not that it’s required for bills the governor signs

  • Countersigning dates back to Wisconsin’s early days, when there needed to be a way to verify official documents, and paper documents were the norm.

Wisconsin has a new set of Legislative maps, and many politicians have spoken out about them; expressing excitement, questions and apprehension. 

Sarah Godlewski took to social media to express her happiness, and to share a snapshot into her life as the secretary of state. 

In a Feb. 21 X post, Godlewski said it was "one of her responsibilities" as secretary of state "to countersign acts passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers." 

"I’m excited to be signing 2023 Wisconsin Act 94, because it means fair maps in Wisconsin!" she continued. 

Godlewski in her post insinuated that her signature is necessary to put a new law into action after it’s approved by the Legislature and the governor. 

But is that true? Let’s take a closer look. 

Signature not required

When we asked Godlewski’s office for comment, Nate Schwantes, the chief of staff, sent back information from the Wisconsin  Constitution and the state statutes. 

Schwantes also included a photo of the signature sheet for Senate Bill 488, which is signed by the Senate president, the Assembly speaker and the governor. At the bottom, there is also a line for Godlewski’s signature. 

According to the section of the state’s constitution that addresses the duties of the secretary of state, the person who serves in the position "shall keep a fair record of the official acts of the legislature and executive department of the state, and shall, when required, lay the same and all matters relative thereto before either branch of the legislature." 

So, basically, the state constitution says the secretary keeps a record of official acts by the governor and the Legislature, and can present those acts if asked. No countersignature is mentioned.

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According to the section of the state statutes that addresses the duties of the secretary of state, there are several responsibilities, including recording executive acts, having custody of books and records, providing a biennial report, keeping enrolled laws, compiling original laws and resolutions, recording fees, and several more. 

Another one of the duties is to "affix the great seal and countersign all commissions issued and other official acts done by the governor, the governor’s approbation of the laws excepted."

That portion of the statute is confusing, and it may be because the language dates back to before Wisconsin was even a state. But it doesn’t require Godlewski to countersign laws, Mike Gallagher of the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau said in an email. 

"The (secretary of state’s) countersignature of official acts of the governor dates back to Wisconsin’s territorial days and has served primarily as a means of document authentication, i.e. verification of the legitimacy of official documents, especially in an era when state government relied exclusively on physical documents," Gallagher said. 

He also noted that while yes, laws signed by the governor have included a signature block for the secretary of state since before Godlewski took office, she’s not actually required to sign on the line in order for a law to be functional. 

"The (secretary of state) has no role in the process by which a law takes effect," he said. "After having been passed by both houses of the legislature and signed by the governor, a law becomes effective on the day after the day on which the law is required to be published by the Legislative Reference Bureau."

"That date of publication is the day after the governor signs the law. The (secretary of state) has no official role in this process, whether by countersigning the governor’s approval or otherwise."

The secretary of state’s office has gradually diminished over the years, making the role largely inconsequential, even though the person in the role is elected. In reality, the office has just a few small duties outlined in state law. 

For Godlewski, this isn’t the first time she’s overstated her role as the secretary of state. Last year, she exaggerated her role in state elections, saying she wanted to use the office to help improve transparency and accountability in elections, and help local election officials and the Wisconsin Elections Commission. But those are not roles delegated to the secretary of state, as Megan Wolfe, the commission’s administrator, said in an April 28, 2023, report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Our ruling

Godlewski claimed that one of her responsibilities is to "countersign acts passed by the legislature & signed into law by Gov. Evers." 

Although there is a line on the sheet that is signed by the Legislature and the governor for the secretary of state’s signature, it doesn’t actually matter if she does or doesn’t sign it. The secretary of state has no official role in the process of a bill becoming a law in Wisconsin. 

We rate this claim as Mostly False, because it contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.


Our Sources

Sarah Godlewski, X, Feb. 21, 2024

Email conversation with Nathan Schwantes, secretarty of state's chief of staff, Feb. 27, 2024

Wisconsin Constitution, "Secretary of state; duties, compensation," Feb. 28, 2024

Wisconsin statutes, "Secretary of state, duties," Feb. 28, 2024

Email conversation with Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, Feb. 27. 2024

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wisconsin election officials worried Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski’s election focus will confuse voters," April 28, 2023

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More by Laura Schulte

No, Wisconsin secretary of state doesn’t have to countersign new laws for them to take effect

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