By Brendan O'Brien
MILWAUKEE, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Wisconsin lawmakers took the first step on Thursday to limit recall elections of state officials to cases of serious crimes or ethics violations, following challenges that targeted the governor and several senators in recent years.
Opponents of Governor Scott Walker launched massive protests at the Capitol in Madison in 2011 and later sought to recall the first-term Republican after he pressed legislation to limit the powers of some public sector unions.
The Assembly voted 53-39 to approve a Republican-sponsored proposed constitutional amendment to restrict recalls, sending the measure to the Senate for consideration.
The proposal must be approved twice by the legislature and then by voters in a statewide referendum. Thursday's vote was the first round by the Assembly, meaning it must pass the Assembly again and the Senate twice before going to voters.
"It's time we restore predictability back to the election process," said Republican Representative Jim Steineke, author of the proposal. "Elected officials shouldn't have to fear that a tough vote might escalate to a recall election."
Under Wisconsin's Constitution, an elected state official can be forced into a special election for any reason if a petitioner gathers enough signatures within a 60-day period and the official has served at least a year in office.
"If we want to indeed change our constitution, I would hope it would either be to protect or enhance the rights of the citizens, not to take away their right to hold us accountable," Democrat Representative Peter Barca said.
Under the proposed amendment, elected state officials could be recalled only if they have been charged with a crime punishable by at least one year in prison or if there is probable cause that they have violated the state's code of ethics.
Republicans took majorities in both sides of the Wisconsin legislature and the governor's office in 2010 and Democrats and labor groups targeted several Republican state senators for recall elections to try to return the Senate to Democrats.
Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election in 2012 when he defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, in what amounted to a do-over of their 2010 election. Two other governors were successfully ousted from office through recall.
A similar measure that would require malfeasance in office for an elected local official to be recalled is also working its way through the legislature. That measure only requires approval of lawmakers and the governor.
Eighteen states allow recalls of elected state officials, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those, eight states require grounds for elected officials to be recalled. (Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by David Bailey, Ken Wills and Lisa Shumaker)