Wisconsin’s failed democracy embodies the right’s vision for the United States

The political rot in our state might just decide the 2020 election.

The political rot in our state might just decide the 2020 election.

Photo by Laurie Shaull on Flickr.

“This is not how democracy is supposed to work,” wrote Bill Whitford, in a 2017 article published in Time Magazine titled “Why Wisconsin Is Not a Democracy.” Whitford, a legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin and a plaintiff in the case that brought Wisconsin’s Republican gerrymander to the United States Supreme Court, argued that by rigging the legislative maps in the 2011 redistricting bill, state Republicans had unjustifiably cemented their place in elected office. Also anticipating the SCOTUS ruling on gerrymandering (which the justices tossed out for lack of standing), the International Bar Association asked: “Does the road to autocracy run through Wisconsin?” 


President Trump hopes so. 

Wisconsin’s notorious Republican gerrymander has delivered Republicans a decade-long majority in the State Senate and Assembly. Coupled with voter ID laws largely targeting minority voters, the state’s right wing has locked in right-wing representation in the legislature. The 2018 state elections illustrated the Republican gerrymander clearly: Wisconsin voters elected Governor Evers by just over one percent of the popular vote. Had the gubernatorial election been determined by the maps used to determine State Assembly elections, Evers would have lost 63 of the state’s 99 districts to Governor Scott Walker, the incumbent.  

During Walker’s tenure, Republicans made Wisconsin a laboratory for far-right policy and power-building. Trump may have humiliated Walker in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, but Walker, like so many Republicans, fell in line with Trump in the years following. Their affinity is natural, and in many ways the Trump Administration has simply applied the grisly Wisconsin model at the federal level. Like Walker, Trump has presided over an almost casual culture of open corruption and corporate influence-peddling, the raiding of executive-branch agencies by inept and hostile political appointees, and a disregard for deliberative and transparent political processes.

With a lock on power in the state, Wisconsin Republicans have, since Evers was elected two years ago, taken up the project of limiting the governor’s executive powers and blocking his agenda at the legislative level. Before Evers took office—but after his definitive win at the polls—state Republicans introduced a flurry of laws intended to curb Evers’ executive authority, once in office.

One measure, passed during the so-called “lame duck” session, slowed the disbursement of federal COVID-19 aid to the state in April. In the months since, Wisconsin Republicans have all but abdicated legislative responsibilities, refusing to vote on legislation Evers submitted, including a slate of bills addressing police brutality, introduced after Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake. (Blake survived, paralyzed from the waist down.)

State Republicans have not passed one bill since April, nor have they tried. Not as Wisconsin residents across the state took to the streets to demand an end to police murder. Even as cases in the state began to ascend dramatically this month, Wisconsin lawmakers have refused to meet. 

Instead, state Republicans have thrown their efforts into a series of lawsuits to dismantle Evers’ public health orders. In March, the state legislature voted down a bill that would provide universal absentee ballots for the April 7 election. On April 21, the state legislature sued to end Evers’ “safer-at-home” order, intended to slow the spread of the virus. On October 7, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos issued a statement claiming that Evers’ ban on mass gatherings was “unenforceable”—and just days later, the Tavern League of Wisconsin filed suit to end the ban. 

Now, with hospitals around the state at 85 percent capacity as of October 27, COVID patients are being seen in ad hoc tent facilities on the state fairgrounds near Milwaukee. At the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, which has rapidly expanded its COVID units, healthcare workers worry the intensive care unit may become overwhelmed. Over 2,000 people had died of Covid in the state as of October 31—a number that will grow as cases continue to mount in Wisconsin. 

State Republicans, meanwhile, have stalled and sued to block the governor’s modest attempts at curtailing the spread of the virus. If the impact of the Republicans’ 2011 gerrymander could be measured in votes, the party’s prolonged attempts to subvert public health measures in Wisconsin could reasonably be measured in lives. (71 people, for example, who voted in the April election contracted COVID.) 

But the limits on democratic expression at the polls in Wisconsin do not only affect the state itself. Wisconsin’s voter identification laws prevented eligible voters from casting a ballot in  the 2016 presidential election, where Black voters were 50 percent more likely to be barred from voting than white voters. This week’s presidential election will deepen the imprint of Wisconsin’s democratic deficiencies on the national electoral process. Gerrymandering, discriminatory voter identification laws, and lines at the polls so long they amount to a de facto poll tax aren’t just signs of Wisconsin’s eroded democracy: those same measures, which enabled the Republican grip on the state legislature, may well affect the outcome of this election. 

Trump, polling low and facing emergent accusations of massive tax fraud, has used the same unfounded claims of voter fraud as Wisconsin’s right wing to cast doubt on the election results. During the first debate, Trump—whose lies invoked images of ballots “in creeks” and in dumpsters—encouraged his supporters to watch for fraud at polling places on election day. Already, Wisconsin Republicans have blocked, with the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court, efforts to widen the window for submitting an absentee ballot until election day. 

Wisconsin, a swing state, could deliver the presidential election to Joe Biden or to the incumbent. That a cabal of state politicians without a convincing electoral mandate have taken it upon themselves to curb access to the vote is not just a symptom of Wisconsin’s corrupt electoral process—it’s a sign of the United States’ failed democracy. 


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