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Robin Vos’ private cop squad is a horrifying prospect

The Wisconsin Assembly Speaker’s election investigation goes way beyond his usual slimy maneuvering.

Robin Vos has long epitomized a gruesome brand of corrupt, mercenary, comically disingenuous right-wing politics. This week, he has outdone himself. It is no exaggeration to say that he has become one of the most virulent fascists in the United States.

Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly and de facto political boss of the Wisconsin Legislature, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday that he is hiring a group of retired police officers to investigate the 2020 election, on the public dime. The Journal Sentinel‘s Patrick Marley reports that Vos said people he subpoenas would be granted immunity from prosecution, but also that Vos “did not rule out the possibility the investigators would refer some matters to prosecutors.” It sure sounds like Vos is trying to keep us in suspense about what his weird private cops with subpoena power will do. 

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This goes beyond Vos’ usual slippery power plays. The speaker is pushing into brazenly authoritarian behavior. While he’s an easy man to laugh at, we should all be furious and afraid. 

Vos claims he’s not trying to overturn the results of an election that took place seven months ago, gave Republicans another decisive majority in the Legislature, and put Republicans in five of Wisconsin’s eight House seats. All the same, Vos keeps on nursing doubts about the legitimacy of the election anyway, saying, “Is there a whole lot of smoke or is there actual fire?” It’s a fire Republicans deliberately started so that they could point to some smoke. 

Alright, so an aggrieved nitwit and popcorn landlord is hiring three retired cops and a lawyer to go on a fishing expedition. Scoff at your own peril. Accountability and checks are weak enough for real police agencies and investigative units, but these are just contractors who answer to the legislative majority. Who governs their conduct? What rules do they have to follow? This is a legal and procedural grey area. We’d better hope Vos is too small-time and inept to exploit it to the fullest. If the group takes on greater numbers and resources, or expands the scope of its activities, it will become a powerful instrument of abuse, harassing Vos’ political enemies with impunity. 

If legislators had real concerns about the conduct of the election, they could carry out their oversight function—i.e. hold hearings, conduct investigations, even issue subpoenas—without the need to hire their own pet cops. They could appeal to the state’s Department of Justice and Attorney General to investigate their allegations of election tampering, for which they’ve provided no evidence. Vos tells the Journal Sentinel that one of his goals is to “identify laws that should be changed.” All you need for that is a lawyer or a legislative staffer or two and, I dunno, a table at the state law library. 

So what are cops doing here? Simple: They are intimidating people who get in Republicans’ way. Given Vos’ fixation on events like Madison’s “Democracy in the Park” ballot-collection effort and his insistence that people in Madison and Milwaukee aren’t legitimate members of the state’s electorate, we can expect his goon squad to particularly target local elections officials. They likely won’t find any solid evidence that election officials or voters did anything illegal or improper. They might find some flimsy pretexts that Republicans can throw on that carefully tended fire to create more convenient smoke. They will definitely create a chilling effect, make voters feel afraid to vote, make elections officials feel afraid to do their jobs, and make activists feel afraid to help people register to vote. How else can you feel when there are cops sniffing around in the absence of clear boundaries?

After months of other sham investigations and failed court cases across the country, we know Republicans don’t have real concerns about the 2020 election. What they do have is manufactured suspicion, a manufactured narrative, and most importantly a relentless drive to de-legitimize anything that doesn’t build their power. Republicans have largely pursued those goals by keeping up their coordinated, nationwide attacks on voting rights, and by drawing legislative maps that will keep them in power in state legislatures whether or not a majority of voters support them. In states including Wisconsin and North Carolina, they’ve passed lame-duck laws to take powers away from incoming Democratic governors.

There is another pattern we need to pay attention to here. Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature have consistently tried to give themselves powers that parallel the functions of the executive branch rather than the legislative one. And these powers aren’t vested in the legislature as a whole, but in the Republican majority and in specific legislative committees, especially the Joint Finance Committee. The more this effort advances, the closer the committee’s 12 Republican members (there are only four Democratic members) get to unilaterally running the state, rather than playing its already powerful role of approving budget measures that then go on to the Legislature as a whole for debate and votes. Legislative Republicans have a free hand to hire private attorneys with public funds, although a Dane County judge has checked that power in at least one case. The lame-duck laws passed in 2018 gave the JFC new powers to approve or block routine moves from state executive-branch agencies—and ended up slowing down Wisconsin’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Legislature has bothered to address the pandemic at all, it has also unsuccessfully tried to give JFC the power to approve the state’s vaccination plans (clearly not a job for a budget committee), create a relief fund the JFC would directly control, give JFC control over the state’s use of federal relief funds, and give JFC the power to unilaterally cut salaries for some top officials at the state’s Department of Workforce Development. 

I’ve made this point in previous articles over the past couple years and I’m belaboring it now, but it bears repeating: Republicans are trying to build their own parallel executive branch in the Legislature. If Vos actually gets to have his own cops, the parallel executive will have enforcers. It’s a bit late to be shocked about anything Vos does or says, but everyone who cares about Wisconsin must understand that he is truly dangerous.

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