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A postmortem on Wisconsin’s plague election

The results from April 7 are a relief, but Wisconsin’s democracy remains sicker than ever.

Image: Daniel Kelly’s election-night party, probably. Via Wikimedia Commons.

These days in Wisconsin politics, the best we can hope for is temporary relief.

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We deserve to bask in it for a day or two, after a gruesome and bleak election that shouldn’t have happened on April 7 in the first place. Republicans went to great lengths to keep the Trump-endorsed Justice Daniel Kelly on Wisconsin Supreme Court, quashing efforts to expand voting by mail or extend deadlines for people who asked for absentee ballots but didn’t get them. The combined efforts of Republican state lawmakers, the state Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court forced tens of thousands of Wisconsinites to either not vote or to risk exposing themselves to the COVID-19 virus by standing in long lines at crowded polling places. The effort to flip Kelly’s seat felt doomed. But when results were finally released on April 13, challenger Jill Karofsky claimed 55.28 percent of the vote to Kelly’s 44.72—a triumphant margin at a time when most important statewide races are squeakers.

The election also left the state fearing a related spike in COVID cases, haunted by the ghoulish spectacle of Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos working the polls and declaring conditions “incredibly safe” while wearing head-to-toe protective gear.

And then there’s the political fallout. Here’s what we’ll need to think about in the days ahead.

The conservative long game to rig the vote

Wisconsin Republicans gave up on electoral politics 10 years ago, privileging a strategy that relied on the systematic disenfranchisement of voters presumed more likely to cast ballots for Democrats.

In Wisconsin, the state legislature is responsible for drawing up statewide electoral maps following the Census, taken every 10 years. The drafted maps are subject to review by the governor, and when in 2011 the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature—by an operation so secretive even lower-ranking members of the GOP weren’t privy to the process—re-drew the electoral districts in the state, then-Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, signed off hastily. Data collected by Stanford and University of Wisconsin researchers indicated that the Wisconsin maps were mathematically super-skewed in Republicans’ favor, and the 2018 gubernatorial and congressional elections suggested as much: by the popular vote, Democratic Governor Tony Evers edged out incumbent Scott Walker—while Walker carried 63 of the state’s 99 assembly districts.

In 2011, the state Republicans rammed through Act 10, a piece of union-busting legislation that illustrated the synonymity of the Republican and corporate projects: intended not only to weaken worker power, Act 10 hobbled unions and public education—institutions that bolster democracy, and that conservatives have identified as a source of power on the left. And they passed a voter ID bill which disproportionately targeted Black and Latino voters in the state and was replicated in states across the country.

When Evers was elected governor, state Republicans ramped up their efforts to maintain control, unleashing a slew of measures intended to curb the Democratic governor’s executive power in an unprecedented flurry of lame duck legislation—a bloodless coup.

The Republican strategy to lock down their power in the state didn’t depend on ostentatious corruption, voter bribery, or ballot tampering—instead, Republicans have long used legal and legislative mechanisms to ensure noncompetitive elections in perpetuity. Until last week. As public health officials raised warnings about the Wisconsin election and other states holding elections cancelled theirs, state Republicans sued to hold an in-person election during the coronavirus pandemic in Wisconsin. Milwaukee, the epicenter of the pandemic, where Black people have suffered disproportionately from the virus, saw its usual 180 polling places collapse to five.

Victory yes, legitimacy no

The people who deliberately turned this election into a sham may have lost their big prize—that supreme court seat. There’s a moral victory in that. But it’s still a loss for a credible, functioning democracy. Watching people risk their health and possibly their lives to vote will erode public faith in democracy, even if many of us are grateful for it. It also won’t get Republicans to back down on the strategy they’ve been pursuing for the past decade. If anything, Republicans will conclude that they need to suppress the vote even more aggressively, and put even more innocent people at risk. The right person winning doesn’t make the process legitimate. Sadly, the results from April 7 will inspire even greater efforts to undermine the integrity of our elections.

What’s ahead for the Wisconsin Supreme Court

In celebrating Karofsky’s upset victory, commentators like Robert Reich have overlooked the fact that we’re still in the midst of an uphill battle. Karofsky won’t be sworn in until August, and even then, right-wing justices will still hold a 4-3 majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Wisconsin voters won’t get another shot at changing the balance until 2023, when Chief Justice Patience Roggensack’s third term expires. If someone steps down or dies in the meantime, Evers can appoint a new justice, but that person would have to run again soon. As former Justice Janine Geske explained to Wisconsin Public Radio, an appointed justice stays in office until running again in “a year in which there is no election for another justice because two cannot run at one.” So, if Evers gets to appoint a justice before his first term is up, there could still be an election for that seat in either 2021 or 2022.

Reich’s prediction that “the court won’t okay the GOP’s purging of 240,000 voters before the November election. Or other efforts at voter suppression” is way too optimistic and underestimates the deviousness of Wisconsin Republicans. That said, Karofsky’s victory, and Rebecca Dallett’s in 2018, show that there’s hope when Wisconsin voters take supreme court elections seriously and treat them like the political contests they are.

Wisconsinites fell for the Marsy’s Law scam

By a massive margin, voters approved “Marsy’s Law,” a deceptively worded ballot question that will amend the state constitution to enshrine certain rights for crime victims and undermine the rights of the accused. Part of a broader national campaign to give crime victims “equal rights” across the United States, the Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin boasted support from both Republican and Democratic politicians. But so often “bipartisanship” is just a nice word for everyone getting duped by Republicans, or for mainstream politicians genuinely agreeing on very toxic norms. In this case, Marsy’s Law bolsters the norms of a racist system of mass incarceration, and it will prevent even more defendants from getting fair trials by allowing crime victims (read: the prosecution, really) “to refuse an interview, deposition, or other discovery request made by the accused or any person acting on behalf of the accused.”

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The Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin messaging had a notably right-wing bent, touting endorsements from Republican legislators and for some reason sharing a news story about an alleged “Romanian organized crime group” operating in Wisconsin—the kind of batty fearmongering that gets coddled white people to the polls. The Marsy’s Law campaign has so often framed “victims’ rights” as a women’s issue (correctly pointing out that the criminal justice system often mistreats victims of rape and domestic violence), but also touted the endorsement of State Senator André Jacque, whose political career has been laser-focused on attacking abortion rights. This is no accident, because the campaign worked with a communications firm, Platform Communications, whose leaders have served as advisers or flaks for Scott Walker and Ron Johnson. The firm’s other clients have included Foxconn, the transphobic Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, and the suspiciously named Natural Resource Development Association. If you voted for this, you got played.

Evers’ response was kind of weak

All of the legal pathways for delaying the election were dead ends. The Republican-dominated legislature refused to act, and staunchly GOP-loyal judges have majorities on both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Still, it didn’t help that Evers hesitated for so long to use his executive power to change the election date, and publicly claimed that he couldn’t do that—until he did it, the morning before the election.

Wisconsin politicians and business leaders still don’t get it

The spotlight of national shame still wasn’t enough to get some of our civic and business leaders to snap out of it and take COVID-19 seriously. Republican legislators kept dicking around with a relief bill that’s already too late, working in a since-removed provision that would have given the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee the power to unilaterally cut state funding items without the Governor’s approval. Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke spent part of Monday complaining about Democrats offering amendments to the bill and feebly trying to justify how long this has all taken. Odds are that legislators can get a relief package to Evers’ desk by the end of this week, just in time to secure crucial federal funding. Considering how quickly they got the 2018 lame-duck bills done, we should reasonably expect them to move quickly during a deadly pandemic.

Meanwhile, right-wing business group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and two of our most goonish state senators pushed the “get back to work and maybe die” line that’s become so fashionable in national Republican discourse. The editorial board of the Kenosha News bought into this, quoting a WMC statement without bothering to challenge or question it, and arguing that Evers’ “Safer at Home” order should not be extended past its current April 24 expiration date. We’re not safe yet—not from this pandemic and not from people who’d sacrifice everyday Wisconsinites for wealth and power.

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