Stealing an election after the fact

December 10, 2018

Scot McCullough reports from Madison on the state Republicans’ anti-democratic plot to hold onto power — and the disappointing mobilization to try to stop them.

WISCONSIN REPUBLICANS are trying to undo the results of the 2018 elections — and like a lot of thieves, they’re using the cover of night to do it.

After losing all the main statewide races — for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer — the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bill in the early hours of last Wednesday, while most residents of the state still slept, to strip the power of incoming Democrats.

The first public announcement of the bill was snuck into the end of the news cycle — at 4:30 p.m. on Friday. After hearings on Monday and a special duck session called for Tuesday, the final version of the legislation — amended so that it could command a narrow 18-17 majority in the state Senate — wasn’t available to lawmakers until 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

Senators passed the bill in a matter of hours over strong objections and even a dissenting Republican vote. The State Assembly followed suit, sending the bill to the desk of Gov. Scott Walker, who was defeated for re-election last month, so Walker can sign it before Democrat Tony Evers takes office January.

Rallying outside the Wisconsin state Capitol against Republican power grabs
Rallying outside the Wisconsin state Capitol against Republican power grabs (Emily Hamer | Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)

The legislation itself — and the parts of it that the Republicans sought, but couldn’t get through — shows all too clearly how undemocratic the U.S. political system is, and how far the Republicans are willing to go to maintain their rule despite having only minority support.

Among the provisions of the legislation is a reduced early-voting period, from six weeks to two; codifying policies to make it difficult to get an ID to vote; and changes to agency boards to allow the Republican-dominated legislature to appoint more members compared to the governor.

To get even enough members of their own party for a majority in the Senate, the Republicans had to drop a provision that would have given the legislature the power to appoint its own attorney when state laws are challenged in court, sidestepping the elected attorney general. Wisconsin is currently part of a lawsuit seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act, something Democrats opposed in their election campaign.

Another clause that didn’t make it would have moved the date of the 2020 presidential primary vote to a different day than a statewide election where a conservative Supreme Court justice is running for re-election — apparently to depress turnout for the judicial vote.

It isn’t hard to see why, having lost the state’s executive offices, Republicans are suddenly in a rush to hand powers to the state legislature: They have majorities in both the Senate and State Assembly.

The system is so badly gerrymandered to favor Republicans that Democrats received 54 percent of the vote in all the races for State Assembly statewide — yet they will only have 36 percent of the seats when the new session starts in January. The state is facing a lawsuit in federal court over how undemocratic the system is — which is a prime reason for wanting to hamstring the new Democratic attorney general.

WHEN THE legislation was announced on November 30, liberal groups across Wisconsin began mobilizing against it. But unfortunately, there wasn’t an all-out mobilization like in 2011, when Walker, having just taken office, tried to ram through draconian anti-union legislation, sparking the Wisconsin uprising.

Most groups, including a number of labor unions, the Bernie Sanders-led Our Revolution, NextGen America and others, asked their members to call their legislators. Indivisible Madison, on the other hand, led a call for rallies at the state Capitol.

During the public hearings on Monday, hundreds of people flooded into the Capitol, and the hearing rooms overflowed. People who were denied entrance to the rooms banged on doors, chanting “Respect My Vote.”

That day was at least a reminder of the 2011 uprising, when union members and people across the state occupied the Capitol building for 17 days. However, the first day of the protest in 2011 had 10,000 people rallying outside the Capitol and another 3,000 inside. The rally on the day of the public hearings had 300 to 400 people, while the hearing itself had 1,424 people register against the bill.

On Tuesday, the state assembly was scheduled to start a special session in the early afternoon, but the State Assembly Republicans were nowhere to be found. Similarly, the state Senate continued to take long recesses. Democratic legislators regularly updated social media, saying that they were waiting for the Republicans to show up.

Unfortunately, there were even fewer protesters in the Capitol, just in the dozens, as unions and liberal organizations continued to organize members to call their senators rather than show up — implying that they were already resigned to defeat.

This shows a terrible amnesia about the story of the uprising less than eight years ago, when the mass mobilizations, backed up by job actions and the threat of strikes, pressured Democratic legislators to take action and foiled Walker and the Republicans for an extended period.

Despite the small numbers of people at the Capitol, police cars lined the streets nearby as authorities prepared themselves to deal with much larger numbers.

It still took the Republicans all Tuesday and part of Wednesday to get their way. An amended 56-page bill was released after 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday — that was the first moment lawmakers knew what they were voting on.

The voting in both the Senate and State Assembly took place in the next few hours — over Democratic objections that their members were just seeing the legislation then — with most people across the state still asleep.

The Republicans’ methods were laid bare: If they can’t win elections, they’ll try to overturn the results through any anti-democratic measures they can think of.

Wisconsin isn’t the only election crime scene either. The limitation on early voting in Wisconsin, from six weeks to two, has the same goal of reducing participation of those seeking to vote as the voter ID laws that have been a tool of the Republican Party for years now.

If these methods didn’t work in the election itself in Wisconsin, they did in other states: Purging the voter registration rolls and using the “exact match” program to disqualify voters based on clerical errors was a major reason for Brian Kemp’s narrow victory in the Georgia governor’s race.

And if the results don’t suit the Republicans, there’s always the strategy being pursued in Wisconsin, which is similar to one used by the GOP in North Carolina in 2016 to reduce the powers of the incoming Democratic Party governor.

The Wisconsin legislation will no doubt be challenged in court, but anyone who opposes the right wing needs to be prepared to respond to these anti-Democratic measures with mass mobilizations like the one that swept into the Wisconsin Capitol building eight years ago.

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