The Republican Party has once more demonstrated that it has no respect for democracy and is determined to hold on to power by any means necessary. GOP state lawmakers in Wisconsin this week engaged in a brazen power grab in the form of bills that were introduced, debated and voted on with breathtaking speed in order to cripple the decision-making powers of Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul. Legislators called a special session late last Friday, and then, as protesters marched and rallied outside the state Capitol building, the politicians debated in a closed-door session. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, before the sun rose, senators voted on and passed the bills and GOP members prevailed by a single-vote margin. A few hours later, their counterparts in the Wisconsin House did the same—by a larger margin.
According to The New York Times, the bills ensure that “[t]here would be a new limit on early voting, which tends to benefit Democratic candidates, after an election that saw record-breaking turnout.” Additionally, the Times reported, “[l]awmakers, not the governor, would control the majority of appointments on an economic development board.” The bills also curb the incoming governor’s ability to ban guns from the state Capitol and to protect the Affordable Care Act from legal challenges, among other things.
Wisconsin’s House speaker, Republican Robin Vos, disingenuously claimed on Twitter on Wednesday that “Democrats have been exaggerating and resorting to hyperbole throughout the debate.” He added sagely, “The vote is about ensuring equal branches of government exist in #Wisconsin especially during this time of divided government.” But a day earlier, Vos let slip his real agenda, saying, “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.” It apparently has not occurred to Vos that voters, who live in a democracy, have elected the “very liberal” Evers over incumbent Scott Walker.
Wisconsin’s Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, also had a moment of honesty, saying Monday: “We trusted Scott Walker and the administration to be able to manage the back and forth with the Legislature. We don’t trust Tony Evers right now in a lot of these areas.” His statement is essentially a slap in the face to Wisconsin voters. He might as well have said, “We don’t trust voters.”
When voters are fully engaged in a healthy manner in their democracy, it should not surprise us that they may not choose Republicans—members of a party that has vociferously championed corporate personhood over ordinary people, the rights of fetuses over living babies and mothers, the profits of CEOs over workers and unions, the violence of guns over unarmed civilians and so on.
Mary Bottari, director of the Center for Media and Democracy’s Real Economy Project, lives in Wisconsin and has been participating in the protests this week. In an interview, she shared with me her shock at how brazenly and quickly the state’s Republicans moved to roll back gubernatorial power. “We’re still sorting through what the heck happened in the middle of the night,” she said. In addition to the bills, the GOP-dominated Legislature also rammed through a whopping 82 appointments by Walker of people to head various boards and agencies.
Right now Wisconsin’s political landscape looks extremely skewed. Bottari explained, “Democrats swept in this election,” winning the governorship, as well as the lieutenant governor, treasury secretary, secretary of state, and attorney general posts, and all the major positions that voters choose statewide. And yet in legislative races, the Democratic Party gained only one seat. According to Bottari, this is because “Our legislature is the most gerrymandered in the nation.” In fact, a case challenging Wisconsin’s redistricting process went to the Supreme Court earlier this year, but justices sent it back to the state, saying that plaintiffs needed greater standing to prove that they had been directly injured by the gerrymandered districts.
So the midterm elections took place with the skewed district maps in place—and the GOP clearly benefited. Republican state Assembly members won only about 46 percent of all votes on Nov. 6 but took 64 percent of all seats. What this means for the series of bills passed this week is that Republican lawmakers—the least democratically representative elected officials in the state—used their ill-gotten political power to disempower the most democratically representative politicians.
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Seeing that high voter turnout helped their rival party win seats democratically, the GOP reduced the window for early voting as part of the package of bills it rushed through this week. Apparently, democracy does not benefit or suit the conservative party.
Wisconsin’s Republicans are so used to gaining political power through undemocratic means that that state’s U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan recently cast doubt on how California voters managed to vote out every congressional Republican representative who was running for re-election. Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, retorted, “Our elections in California are structured so that every eligible citizen can easily register, and every registered voter can easily cast their ballot,” a concept, he added, that might be “strange for Speaker Ryan, who comes from Wisconsin.”
The Republican Party has for years seen an opening at the state level to drive through its regressive agenda, pushing through model legislation across as many states as possible. Not only has the gerrymandering of districts happened at the state level, so have gun proliferation laws, anti-union “right to work” laws, “fetal personhood” laws and more. Now, Wisconsin Republicans are taking a page from their North Carolina counterparts who stymied an incoming Democratic governor two years ago in a similar manner, and Michigan’s Republicans are also resorting to the underhanded tactics in what seems to be the latest state-by-state GOP trend.
But it’s not so easy to impede democracy. Wisconsinites, spurred by nearly a decade of GOP assaults, aren’t rolling over and giving in. Bottari explained that the public pressure outside the state Capitol was essential to watering down some of the worst aspects of the bills that the party forced through this week. “Those 1,400 people who came to the Capitol, who filled out slips and testified, and the thousands that were outside the Capitol in the dark of night, in the freezing cold, really did their job,” she said. There are also likely to be lawsuits challenging the legality of some of the bills that passed. Evers also retains his veto power and has leverage over Republicans to negotiate a repeal of some of the damage they have done.
When voters are fully engaged in a healthy manner in their democracy, it should not surprise us that they may not choose Republicans—members of a party that has vociferously championed corporate personhood over ordinary people, the rights of fetuses over living babies and mothers, the profits of CEOs over workers and unions, the violence of guns over unarmed civilians and so on. What is happening in Wisconsin symbolizes the latest tactics of a party that has set itself up for minority rule at the expense of democracy.