Wisconsin Governor Hacks the Veto Process

In my latest book, A Hacker’s Mind, I wrote about hacks as loophole exploiting. This is a great example: The Wisconsin governor used his line-item veto powers—supposedly unique in their specificity—to change a one-year funding increase into a 400-year funding increase.

He took this wording:

Section 402. 121.905 (3) (c) 9. of the statues is created to read: 121.903 (3) (c) 9. For the limit for the 2023-24 school year and the 2024-25 school year, add $325 to the result under par. (b).

And he deleted these words, numbers, and punctuation marks:

Section 402. 121.905 (3) (c) 9. of the statues is created to read: 121.903 (3) (c) 9. For the limit for the 2023-24 school year and the 202425 school year, add $325 to the result under par. (b).

Seems to be legal:

Rick Champagne, director and general counsel of the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau, said Evers’ 400-year veto is lawful in terms of its form because the governor vetoed words and digits.

“Both are allowable under the constitution and court decisions on partial veto. The hyphen seems to be new, but the courts have allowed partial veto of punctuation,” Champagne said.

Definitely a hack. This is not what anyone thinks about when they imagine using a line-item veto.

And it’s not the first time. I don’t know the details, but this was certainly the same sort of character-by-character editing:

Mr Evers’ Republican predecessor once deploying it to extend a state programme’s deadline by one thousand years.

A couple of other things:

One, this isn’t really a 400-year change. Yes, that’s what the law says. But it can be repealed. And who knows that a dollar will be worth—or if they will even be used—that many decades from now.

And two, from now all Wisconsin lawmakers will have to be on the alert for this sort of thing. All contentious bills will be examined for the possibility of this sort of delete-only rewriting. This sentence could have been reworded, for example:

For the 2023-2025 school years, add $325 to the result under par. (b).

The problem is, of course, that legalese developed over the centuries to be extra wordy in order to limit disputes. If lawmakers need to state things in the minimal viable language, that will increase court battles later. And that’s not even enough. Bills can be thousands of words long. If any arbitrary characters can be glued together by deleting enough other characters, bills can say anything the governor wants.

The real solution is to return the line-item veto to what we all think it is: the ability to remove individual whole provisions from a law before signing it.

Posted on July 10, 2023 at 7:24 AM35 Comments


Tom July 10, 2023 7:49 AM

If deleting arbitrary characters is allowed, this provision could have been edited down to a straightforward “sod off”. It’s hard to see this staying the way it is for long.

Hans July 10, 2023 8:16 AM

Seems I do speak neither Jura nor English enough to understand this hack. As I see it, the remainig line turns to:

the limit for 202324–25, add $325 to the

Could someone explain that?

Fazal Majid July 10, 2023 8:32 AM

So basically Return Oriented Programming for legislation? Clever but clearly abusive. Line item vetoes have seldom delivered savings and are just another tool used in horse-trading.

Winter July 10, 2023 9:08 AM


The entire state elections system has been hacked

A long time ago, I already got the distinct impression that many US states have become one-party dictatorships.

Uthor July 10, 2023 10:07 AM

As someone who voted for this politician and like this hack, I approve and am amused.

But I definitely imagine how mad I would be if it did something I did not like.

Uthor July 10, 2023 10:09 AM


There is a slight mistake in the text quoted. The first dash is not deleted, the second dash is. It leaves “2023-“, “24”, and “25”. 2023-2425.

Dinah July 10, 2023 10:30 AM

Can’t wait to see the law proposed to change this: The governor shall not [line item veto of “not”]

Xavier Lagraula July 10, 2023 10:33 AM


I did not check but my guess would be that the dashes in the article are partially misplaced. I think the actual result of the veto is:

For the limit for 2023-2425, add $325 to the result under par. (b).

Reeves July 10, 2023 10:48 AM

… so the Wisconsin Governor legally used a “line item veto” in a way you did not like — therefore you subjectively condemn that action with the vague epithet “Hack”.

How would a neutral, unbiased observer characterize the Governor’s action ?

Clive Robinson July 10, 2023 10:59 AM

@ Tom,

Re : Oh for the want of a…

.”If deleting arbitrary characters is allowed, this provision could have been edited down to a straight forward…”

I don’t think there are enough “fs” for “off” however you could have “you”…

So it might become,

“For the limit sod-you”

Or worse 😉

Winter July 10, 2023 11:06 AM


How would a neutral, unbiased observer characterize the Governor’s action ?

As another example of a dysfunctional, one party political system?

The “law” of Wisconsin shows the results of decades of one-party rule with voter suppression.

Clive Robinson July 10, 2023 11:29 AM

@ Reeves,

Re : Bias is seen by how you are cognitively biased…

“How would a neutral, unbiased observer characterize the Governor’s action ?”

It was only one of several “redactions for change” the Governor made.

I won’t claim this article is unbiased, only that it gives some of the other changes made by Tony Evers,


As well as some guesses as to why.

ben zenize July 10, 2023 11:36 AM

are they really talking about statues?
i thought politicians dealt with statutes.

Clive Robinson July 10, 2023 12:19 PM

@ Bruce,

A little more of the background makes it even funnier in some respects…

The “other party” has pulled the same trick in the past, so must be fully cognizant of what is involved.

Further they spent two months writing this legislation, and apparently in a way to force the Governor to make such changes but in their political mantra favour…

The fact they failed in their objective and have subsequently claimed things that are apparently entirely untrue…

Shows that even from a position of strength they failed in their objectives and embarrassingly so. But two further things also become clear

1, They are themselves extreamly duplicitous.
2, They proved the point yet again about the difficulty of “Broad defence v. Chosen Point attack”.

The second of which is a point others should realy be cognizant of. That is if your opponent gets the last go then that can give them a significant advantage…

In warfare a defender is almost always at a disadvantage compared to an attacker. Because the attacker gets to pick the method, place and time of their attack, whilst the defender has no choice but to defend against all methods, at all points, all the time, which is expensive in resources and goes up proportionately to not just the size of the place defended, but the increasing number of methods available to the attacker and the fact that they will pick times to their agenda that as a defender you have little knowledge of.

Worse as with many attacks they do not have to succeed to gain the advantage. To see why,

Consider a suicide bomber or similar, generally they have no strategic target or even objective. Simply detonating in a croud and killing a dozen or so civilians and injuring fifty to a couple of hundred more has no military advantage with regards place or time. However it demonstrates to the the general populous that they will get through, and they will keep succeeding…

So the Governor might have achived a few objectives, but more importantly they have sent out a message and shown that even when out numbered they are neither defeated or stopped.

The other party has it’s own choices to make… Apparently this veto has been used by them to their advantage in the past, and so they’ve not taken advantage in the past of getting rid of it as other States have…

So the question arises are their complaints just hot air over being made to look silly in public, or are they actually serious about getting rid of the veto that they’ve previously gained advantage of?

My 10cents would be “full of Hot odious air” the sort of mentality displayed by them won’t cede what they see as “Potential Power”. It’s a serious failing like a General that won’t cede teritory to gain a more benificial battle advantage such as a better defensive position from which to both weaken the enemy and build up to a chosen method and point of attack to his advantage and take it when the enemy is more disadvantaged.

I guess we’ve got a decade to wait for the answer, but I suspect the other sides mental blockage / bias is just going to get worse with time.

Matt July 10, 2023 12:25 PM

Line-item veto should not allowed at all. The process should be that the legislature submits a single document (of however many pages) representing an entire bill. The governor can then veto or sign the entire bill. If they object to one provision, then they can tell the legislature what they want to see changed, but they cannot change it themselves. If the legislature won’t comply, it’s up to the governor to decide whether to burn political capital by stymying a bill that people want to see passed, or to allow it with whatever provision they don’t like.

Line-item veto is insanity.

Winter July 10, 2023 12:47 PM


Line-item veto is insanity.

From what I heard, the line-item veto then fits Wisconsin politics in general.

Nes July 10, 2023 1:44 PM

This law has been on the books since 1930 I think. Republicans badly abused it in the 80s and it got a bit tamed down in the 90s, then tamed down again in 2008. I doubt there has been a governor that hasn’t abused it.

Clive Robinson July 10, 2023 3:33 PM

@ Matt,

“it’s up to the governor to decide whether to burn political capital by stymying a bill that people want to see passed,”

That’s an unsupported assumption and almost certainly not true for the majority of citizens who should be entitled to vote there.

Because if it was true, why would it be by repute one of the most gerrymandered and worse states in the Union? Such political shenanigans would be entirely unnecessary if the politicians were actually,

“Honest and faithfull servants of the people”.

As I’ve said many times on this blog,

“Representative Democracy is not Democracy.”

If it was then the people would vote on if any legislation should be passed or not.

With regards,

“The process should be that the legislature submits a single document (of however many pages) representing an entire bill.”

Err no. In the US a bill is all to often not about a single or even related subjects. Thus you get “last minute amendments” that are nothing what so ever to do with the legislation title, and are little more than an attempt to slip in decidably questionable legislation for “mantra” reasons. Working on the theory that others will let it in no matter how questionable or have the entire proposed legislation fail.

Where I come from that is often called “Dishonest Behaviour”.

But also the number of times US politicians have held a state or the nation to ransom over legislation that has a time dead line imposed on it like a “budget bill” is well known around the world…

Such nonsense should not be alowed either.

How you go about sorting out such political shenanigans that most citizens I suspect do not want, is a question that is one where any suggestion is almost certainly going to suffer from “The law of unintended consequences”.

Dave July 10, 2023 8:20 PM

Yeah, this sort of thing can lead to the weirdest outcomes:

“I […] breed […] pink […] elephants” – Bruce Schneier, “Secrets and Lies”.

Hans July 11, 2023 4:27 AM


Stuff like that has been used as an art form. For example a poem by Heinrich Heine in 1819:

The German censors […]

Chelloveck July 11, 2023 2:12 PM

@reeves: I suspect Bruce was not using “hack” as a pejorative term, rather in the sense of “using a system in an unanticipated way”. It’s a hack in the older sense of a computer hack: an unexpected way for a programmer to solve a problem, not a malicious attack on the system. A more recent example of the usage might be a “life hack”, an unconventional way to solve a problem.

When most people think of a line-item veto they imagine striking out entire clauses of a bill, not striking out individual characters to effectively change the meaning. It is unquestionably a hack. Whether it’s a clever hack or a dirty hack is an entirely separate issue.

Clive Robinson July 11, 2023 10:47 PM

@ modem phonems,

Re : It’s not alone…

‘So apparently “line item” is not defined in the legal code ?’

Not realy, but then again nor are a great deal of many things.

There is an age old question about a definition for telling the difference between high art and shall we say depiction of more earthly pleasures/activities[1]. To which the now famous reply was there is not one,

“But you know it when you see it!”

If you want to blaim someone for this sort of thinking you need to,

“Go find the reasonable man on the Clapham Omnibus.”

But it might not be that easy, as he is one of many that fall into place as time passes[2].

[1] It can be hard work trying to guess what words are in the auto-mods naughty word list and avoiding using them…

[2] Have a read of,


To see how he is both obvious in general but elusive in the specific.

MarkH July 11, 2023 11:51 PM

@modem, Clive:

“Line item” is an accounting term for a subdivision of a budget specifying an amount of money, and an assigned purpose.

I suspect that in most states with partial veto, governors are limited to striking a line item in entirety, or revising the monetary amount:

The Governor may reduce or eliminate one or more items of appropriation while approving other portions of a bill. The Governor shall append to the bill a statement of the items reduced or eliminated with the reasons for the action. Calif. Const., Art. IV, §10(e)

Wisconsin’s law is exceptional.

Impossibly Stupid July 12, 2023 9:56 AM

For the 2023-2025 school years, add $325 to the result under par. (b).

Not good enough, Bruce. Still can be hacked down to:

For 2025 school years, add $325 to the result under par. (b).

Makes 400 years seem like a modest ask.

Chelloveck July 12, 2023 11:27 AM

@modem phonemes: A disturbingly large amount of US law regarding the actual business of running the government is predicated on politicians acting in good faith and not purposefully misconstruing the meanings of those laws. And, if they act in bad faith, other politicians or the judiciary will call them on it and reverse the action. And, if all that fails, the voting populace will throw the bum out in the next election. All three assumptions have turned out to be rather naive.

HJohn July 12, 2023 4:17 PM

Next time my boss asks me to remove unnecessary items from my job description, I’ll remove the decimal points in the salary ranges. 😉

The Governor acted in bad faith. While we would expect criminals to exploit weaknesses, those in positions of trust should not go outside the clear intent of a rule. To do otherwise calls their integrity into question.

Clive Robinson July 12, 2023 7:13 PM

@ HJohn, ALL,

“The Governor acted in bad faith.”

Did he?

From the little background I’ve seen so far, it appears the “bad faith” was in all probability on the other side of the fence (hence their shouting of “Snot Fair” when “hung by their own petard”). Made worse for them because they also had a history of worse behaviours with respect to this and other Gubernatorial alowances… Yet in the two months they took to write the bill, they failed to put in sufficient safeguards for their own policy/mantra “gullet stuffing” behaviours.

As with most things in politics, it can be hard to see what lies behind the biased headlines and incompleate presentation of facts.

Winter July 13, 2023 3:06 AM


Yet in the two months they took to write the bill, they failed to put in sufficient safeguards for their own policy/mantra “gullet stuffing” behaviours.

The “other side” clearly did not want to make a compromise with the governor as they should have done [1]. The governor did to them that they have always been willing, even happy, to do to him. If they do not agree, they can change the law. If they are unwilling to work together across the aisle to get the 2/3 majority to do so, then that is their problem.

[1] The whole organization of the US political process is built on the assumption that the three branches collaborate.

Chris July 15, 2023 6:03 PM

  1. There’s no hyphen in the result: it was also repealed (you can’t tell, because using a strikeout-font on a hyphen doesn’t work, but it’s obvious). “24-25” is not a year, like “2425” is.
  2. Deleting, as they did, the word “and” makes the resulting wording ambiguous: The $325 increase could easily be argued to apply to that entire stated period ($325 divided by 402 years) – limiting the actual funding increase to under 81 cents per year.

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