Thursday, December 1, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

What’s eating the Wisconsin Legislature?

Through conspiracy-tinged election reform, cultural grievances and unending conflict, Republicans who run Wisconsin’s legislative branch are broadcasting their endgame. Liberals should believe them.

(CN) — Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature have been busy lately. But most telling amid this activity is not what will become law, but what will not.

A raft of election reform bills, for example, indicates deeper truths about the Badger State’s chasmic partisan divide and how GOP legislators have used grievance and paranoia to aid their bid for future success in a zero-sum fight with liberals.

Truthfully, one could be forgiven for believing they and Democratic Governor Tony Evers do not speak the same language, let alone hold the same values, in a way unsatisfactorily explained by swing-state desperation or the frustrations of divided government.

Since Evers beat two-term incumbent Republican Scott Walker in 2018 by around 29,000 votes, he has been at constant loggerheads with Republicans buttressed by safe legislative majorities.

Weeks after his election, Republicans rushed an extraordinary floor session to pass lame-duck laws broadly limiting the powers of Evers and incoming Attorney General Josh Kaul, also a Democrat, before they took office. Most of the laws were later upheld by the conservative-majority Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Whether this poisoned the well before the two sides could make nice is debatable. But the disconnect has lasted: most anything Evers has tried to act on — the budget, special legislative sessions, Covid-19 — Republicans either directly obstruct or support other conservatives’ attempts to.

Republicans’ defiant outlook somewhat explains the election bills from February, but other factors are also at play.

In part, the legislation — echoing measures prioritized by Republicans nationwide after former President Donald Trump’s 2020 loss and proof-challenged insistence he was cheated out of a second term — bars election clerks from fixing mistakes on absentee ballot envelopes; disallows anyone but a voter, a family member or legal guardian from returning their absentee ballot; and requires photo ID each time a voter requests an absentee ballot, not just the first time, among similar measures restricting ballot access.

Evers has not yet vetoed the bills, but he almost certainly will, as he did other bills limiting absentee voting in August. The governor has repeatedly said any law making it harder to vote is a nonstarter.

Republicans lack the votes to override Evers’ vetoes, so they also passed constitutional amendments related to elections, like one saying only U.S. citizens can vote, which is already federal law. The amendments, which the governor cannot stop, would take until at least next year for voters to ratify.

Despite an awareness, by now, of Evers’ priorities, Republicans have forged ahead with a wave of measures from the right-wing wish list. This features bills creating felonies for individuals who attend protests where riots ensue and those who damage certain statues, allowing concealed carry permit holders to possess guns on school property, prohibiting some employers from requiring employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19, creating a “parental bill of rights,” and protecting gun makers from lawsuits.

Given the vanishingly remote likelihood of Evers enacting any of this, the legislators’ goal cannot be lawmaking. So, what is?

Experts and insiders see similar causes and symptoms of the dysfunction, as well as some rationale for the courtship of what were once fringe issues.

Part of the problem, some say, is that due to gerrymandering and polarized politics, Wisconsin has become comprised of too many one-party districts where primaries are paramount and general elections are foregone conclusions.

Barry Burden, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin and director the university’s Elections Research Center, says both major parties nationwide have become more homogenized over the past decade. Coupled with partisan gerrymandering exploiting rural/urban, Republican/Democrat geography, “the GOP essentially created a bullet-proof majority in the Assembly that was immune to changes in voter choices.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Democratic “wave” years like 2012 and 2018, therefore, posed no threat to Republican majorities.

“This emboldened the party to legislate with impunity,” Burden said, contributing to “a reinforcing cycle in which a more extreme party encourages more extreme politicians to be part of it.”

Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic state legislator from Milwaukee and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, agrees that middle-of-the-road politicians and voters seem to have disappeared in an atmosphere where everyone is always in election mode and compromise is a four-letter word.

Unlike days gone by, “compromising to get half a loaf is a betrayal, a sellout. Even if you gave your enemy one slice, you’ve sold out your base, your party, your ideology,” Lee said.

Because of this climate, Lee posits, Republicans feel they can do basically anything to appease the far-right base without losing moderate voters. The election legislation, he says, “epitomizes the internal revolution of the Republican Party.”

“They’re a triple crown: they please Trump, they limit Democrats, and it helps them stay in power,” he said.

Rep. Mark Spreitzer, a Democrat from Beloit who serves on the Assembly’s Republican-controlled elections and campaigns committee, is keenly aware of Republicans’ election reform push.

Ever since December of 2020, “Republicans have used the committee to give a platform to conspiracy theorists who come in and make false and unsubstantiated claims about our elections,” Spreitzer said.

And although a minority of voters actually believe the farfetched claims being bandied about, “you have Republicans catering to that base because they fear a primary challenge,” he said.

Enter former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman.

Last summer, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester, hired Gableman to investigate the 2020 election. On March 1, Gableman reported to the elections committee ostensibly overseeing his review and alleged a conspiracy by everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to George Soros to members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) to fund a secret get-out-the-vote effort targeting Black voters in liberal cities under guise of grants to help administer elections disrupted by Covid-19.

Gableman made no claims of fraud stealing the 2020 election from Trump, and though most Republicans insist they are not trying to litigate or overturn the election, Gableman suggested decertifying the state’s results and dismantling the WEC.

The WEC released an itemized statement on March 4 countering many of Gableman’s claims.

Two audits found no widespread fraud in the 2020 election but made recommendations on how to tighten state election laws and procedures. Biden’s 20,000-vote win in Wisconsin survived a recount Trump demanded and multiple lawsuits across state and federal courts.

Spreitzer sees Gableman’s probe, the election bills and the general candor of Republicans as telegraphing to GOP voters their intentions if they regain total control of state government.

“I would say to the Democratic base: yes, believe them,” Spreitzer said. “Legislators are really good at saying to ourselves, ‘Oh, this is a messaging bill, we’re not making law.’ But those bills that you call messaging bills can suddenly become very, very real.”

Evers is up for reelection this fall. Among those running against him are Walker’s former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, former Marine and businessman Kevin Nicholson and Assembly Rep. Timothy Ramthun of Campbellsport, who has publicly feuded with Vos.

Kleefisch wants to dissolve the WEC and lately has been evasive on whether Biden legitimately won and her commitment to certifying Wisconsin’s election results. Nicholson wants to dissolve the WEC but has conceded Biden won, though he doubts how the election was administered.

Ramthun, favored by Trump, has placed revoking the state’s 2020 electoral votes at the center of his campaign. Nonpartisan lawyers and legislators say this is impossible.

Wisconsin’s primary is on Aug. 9. On the ballot, Evers aside, are Ron Johnson’s U.S. Senate seat and retiring Democratic congressman Ron Kind’s district encompassing most of Wisconsin’s western boundary.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...