The Republican Shenanigans in Wisconsin

How much are Republicans willing to disrupt democracy to maintain their power? We’re starting to find out.


This week, partisan majorities in the Wisconsin legislature, Wisconsin Supreme Court, and US Supreme Court combined their power to rig Tuesday’s election, with the goal of safeguarding the Republican majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court against possible interference by the voters. The cost of this exercise of raw power was both the disenfranchisement of large numbers of Wisconsin citizens and an increase in the spread of Covid-19 in the state. As a result, both votes and lives will be lost.

Wisconsin’s pre-existing condition: an ailing democracy. Before we get into the details of how Tuesday played out, it’s worth noting that Wisconsin’s claim to have a democratic form of government was already shaky. Elections are still held, but the state has been gerrymandered to the point that large Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature are just about impervious to the will of the People. Republicans have power because they have power, not because the voters of Wisconsin want them.

2018 election results in Wisconsin.

The election of 2018 proved that point: Democrats won all the statewide offices, including the governorship. Together, Democratic candidates for the lower house of the legislature — where all the seats were up for election — got 200,000 more votes than Republicans. And yet Republicans won not just a majority of the seats, but close to a supermajority: 63 out of 99.

That advantage comes on top of the unfair advantage Republicans get from voter suppression. They lost among the people who managed to vote by 200K. If voting were easier, they probably would have lost by much more.

How do they get away with that? Well, one reason is that the Wisconsin Supreme Court doesn’t protect the right of Wisconsin voters to control their government, at least not when that government is Republican.

But Supreme Court justices are elected in Wisconsin, so if Wisconsinites want their democracy back, they can vote out the Republican judges who stand in their way. At least in theory. That theory was being tested Tuesday.

What the election was going to be about. Outside of Wisconsin, Tuesday’s election mainly had been getting attention as a presidential primary. Joe Biden held a substantial delegate lead, but Bernie Sanders was still running, and Sanders had beaten Hillary Clinton soundly in Wisconsin in 2016. The recent polls weren’t looking good for Sanders this time, but if he could pull off a result similar to his 2016 victory, things might yet get interesting.

Inside the state, though, the election was about judgeships, particularly a seat on the state’s highest court. Politico explains:

The high court has played a pivotal role in upholding major pieces of GOP legislation including Act 10 in 2011, which limited public employee collective bargaining rights. The court, which now has a 5-to-2 conservative majority, also shut down a long-running investigation into the campaign of former Governor Scott Walker for campaign finance violations, and upheld the GOP Legislature’s move to limit the powers of incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers after his defeat of Walker. The court will also play a decisive role in the upcoming fight over redistricting as well as a host of hot-button social issues such as abortion and religious liberty.

Also at stake: “three seats on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, over 100 other judgeships, over 500 school board seats, and several thousand other positions”.

The judicial elections happening simultaneously with the primary seemed like a misfortune to Republicans, though, because (since Trump is running unopposed) more Democrats seemed likely to turn out than Republicans. If only there were some way to keep turnout down across the board …

The coronavirus election. Then coronavirus happened. Showing up to vote is a risky thing during an epidemic, especially if you have to wait in long lines with other people, some of whom are bound to be carrying the virus. Other states have recognized this problem and so a series of primaries have been postponed. In all 16 states have delayed their primaries.

Democratic Governor Tony Evers thought Wisconsin should do the same. He already had issued a stay-at-home order on March 24, and reasoned that it made little sense to tell people both to stay home and to go out and vote. On April 3 he called the legislature into special session to delay the primary. Evers wanted to convert the primary to a vote-by-mail format, and allow voters to return their ballots anytime until late May.

That, of course, would raise turnout, which is seen as a partisan issue in Wisconsin, and across the country. (If you want a lot of people to vote, you must be a Democrat.) But the gerrymandered Republican legislature could have proposed its own plan to postpone the primary, and Evers would have found himself under considerable pressure to go along with it.

Instead, the legislature came up with the best voter-suppression plan of all: Let’s make people risk their lives in order to vote! The leaders of both houses issued a joint statement: “Our Republic must continue to function.” The primary would go on as scheduled.

This looked like a trainwreck-in-the-making to Governor Evers, whose main job these days is to convince his citizens to stay home and not spread the virus. So the day before the primary — right after the legislature adjourned his special session without acting — he issued an order delaying the primary until June 9, noting the risk not just to the voters, but even moreso to the poll workers who “come into close proximity with dozens, if not hundreds, of voters”.

Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald immediately challenged that order in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which — surprise! — supported them 4-2. Vos and Fitzgerald rejoiced:

We continue to believe that citizens should be able to exercise their right to vote at the polls on Election Day, should they choose to do so … this election will proceed as planned.

What about voting absentee? OK, there’s an election. But that doesn’t mean you have to go to the polls to vote. The decision that the show must go on produced a predictable avalanche of absentee-ballot requests. Last year, when there was a spring election but not a presidential primary, 167,832 absentee ballots were requested. For the 2016 general election there were 595,914 requests. This year? 1,293,288. About 200,000 of those ballots were not returned in time to count, compared to just 30,000 in the 2016 general election.

The office that distributes absentee ballots wasn’t set up to deal with such a deluge of last-minute requests, so it soon became apparent that some number of legitimate Wisconsin voters wouldn’t get their ballots before election day.

A collection of (mostly Democratic) voters and groups sued to get an extension for absentee voters to return their ballots. A federal district court ruled in their favor, extending the deadline from election day to today, nearly a week later. The election commission was also enjoined from releasing results until then.

That ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court’s Republican* majority: Votes could continue to be counted until today, but they had to be postmarked by election day. That decision is unsigned. It mentions the problem that voters may not have received their ballots (which the lower court held was an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote), but then completely ignores it, comparing the situation to normal elections where people who request a ballot at the last minute may not have much time to fill it out and mail it. (It’s worth pointing out that the undelivered-ballot question is not just theoretical. “Three tubs of ballots for Oshkosh and Appleton have been discovered at a mail processing center in Milwaukee, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission and a state senator.”)

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent asks a simple question:

If a voter already in line by the poll’s closing time can still vote, why should Wisconsin’s absentee voters, already in line to receive ballots, be denied the franchise?

The majority opinion doesn’t answer that question, because there is no answer.

Election day. The NYT’s Linda Greenhouse, in a column blasting the Supreme Court’s Republican majority, (and in particular skewering the majority’s use of the word “ordinarily”, as if anything about this situation were ordinary) summarized the election-day conditions.

Milwaukee voters are not ordinarily reduced to using only five polling places. Typically, 180 are open.

In a stunt that probably wasn’t as effective as he planned, Speaker Vos himself worked as an election inspector. Covered in protective equipment, he assured the public that “You are incredibly safe to go out.

Implications for future elections. In the back of everyone’s mind is the question: What if Covid-19 turns out to have a seasonal factor? It almost certainly won’t go away completely in the summer — it’s summer all year round in Florida, and they’ve had nearly 20,000 infections — but what if it diminishes, and then comes roaring back in the fall? Or what if we re-open the economy too quickly and get a fall resurgence that way?

In either case, it’s not impossible to imagine that the general election in November could take place under very similar conditions to the ones in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Wouldn’t it be nice to make a plan for that now, rather than go through last-minute drama and see large numbers of Americans disenfranchised?

You know who has a plan for that? Elizabeth Warren. Her plan calls for online voter registration, a vote-by-mail option, and at least 30 days of early voting. Radical stuff like that.

The problem with all those ideas, of course, is that they encourage people to vote. Or at least Republicans see that as a problem. They talk a lot about fraud, which is their usual excuse for voter suppression, but that’s not their real issue. (Washington state votes entirely by mail and has for years. Voting by mail is the standard thing for our overseas military. Fraud has not been a problem.) Their issue is that if you make voting easy, more people will vote. Marginal voters tend to vote Democratic, so it’s important to make voting as hard as possible.


* Typically, the media refers to the Court’s “conservative” majority, but that characterization has not been accurate for some while. More and more often, dating back to Bush v Gore, Citizens United, and John Roberts’ evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, the Court has been making decisions that can’t be explained by legal philosophy. The point is that Republicans should win, not that some theory of constitutional interpretation is better than another. So henceforth I’ll be refusing to play along with the ruse that their rulings have something to do with limited government or the Founders’ original intent.

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Comments

  • D. Michael Wells  On April 13, 2020 at 10:42 am

    Oregon adopted vote by mail in 1998 and it is used for all elections local and national. It is simple, efficient and there has been no credible allegations of any voter fraud. Our Legislative Assembly has Democratic majorities and all the elective state executive branch positions are held by Democrats except one in which the Republican incumbent died and another Republican was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat. Therefore Republicans hate vote by mail. So do major media outlets because it reduces advertising revenues from political campaigns. Reasons enough to establish and maintain vote by mail in all elections.

  • Barbara Birch  On April 13, 2020 at 10:58 am

    Thanks! I posted on Facebook. For what it’s worth. Keep the faith, friend. Barbara

    ________________________________

  • Jan DeHorn  On April 13, 2020 at 11:33 am

    Makes me say naughty words!!!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  • nwb  On April 13, 2020 at 11:48 am

    Once everyone understands that Republicans aren’t going to allow majority rule, there will be change and it won’t be pretty.

    • frankackerman0617  On April 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

      Everyone? Really? Even the 40%+ the electorate that’s emotionally locked into Trump? Grasping at straws won’t help us avoid the looming disaster.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On April 13, 2020 at 1:24 pm

    Utah is as red as it gets, and they’ve had vote by mail for some time. Another way to shut down the claim that voting by mail encourages fraud, is to ask if our overseas service members should not be allowed to vote, since they all must vote by mail.

  • Brian B  On April 13, 2020 at 9:37 pm

    Despite the Shenanigans, Karofsky appears to have won the State Supreme Court seat. I still have some (very limited) faith in democracy! Will be interesting to see where the votes came from. I think people are tired of Trump and the Republicans…and it is starting to show in the numbers.

    p.s. used to live in Oregon. Vote by mail worked just fine. Much better than going to a polling place!

    • weeklysift  On April 16, 2020 at 9:34 am

      In the short term, voter suppression often arouses the very voters it’s supposed to suppress. But I worry that it does wear people down over time. The first time you hear that somebody is trying to keep you from voting, an “I’ll show them” reaction is fairly typical. But by the fifth or sixth time the outrage may fade.

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