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Democracy's Last Line of Defense

Democracy in Wisconsin
People line up to vote at the Milwaukee County Sports Complex Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Franklin, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

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Democracy in Wisconsin
People line up to vote at the Milwaukee County Sports Complex Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Franklin, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

When Joe Biden took the oath of office six weeks ago, I imagine many Democrats in other states were excited to stop worrying about Wisconsin and Arizona for a few years. 

I have bad news.

Last week, the Supreme Court heard a case that is ostensibly about specific changes to Arizona’s voting laws. In practice, however, experts fear that the Court’s 6-3 conservative majority will use it as a vehicle to gut what remains of the Voting Rights Act. 

H.R.1., the urgently-needed For The People Act, would repair the damage—but faces challenging prospects. If the Court strikes and H.R. 1 doesn’t pass, Gov. Tony Evers (D-WI) will likely be the last line of defense against Republicans’ assault on democracy in Wisconsin and, with it, America.

For nearly half a century, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected Americans from discriminatory election laws. Then, in 2013, in a party-line 5-4 ruling, the Court’s Republican-appointed justices abruptly dismantled some of the Act’s core components. One of the Act’s most powerful measures was its requirement that states with a history of voter suppression submit proposed election law changes to the U.S. Department of Justice for review prior to enactment. The Supreme Court zapped this rule, changing the law such that discriminatory policies could only be challenged after they had already harmed voters. Now, Republicans have their sights set on the rest of the Act—asking the Court to allow draconian voting restrictions regardless of how egregiously or plainly they advantage white or wealthy voters over everyone else.

Not coincidentally, this hearing comes as Republican legislators work feverishly to make voting harder, especially for voters who are Black and brown, young, low-income, or have disabilities. Nationally, they have already introduced 253 measures to restrict voting access in 43 states. Just last week, Wisconsin Republicans proposed 10 separate bills to restrict voting. Among them: making it a felony for staff at assisted living facilities to remind residents to vote, preventing cities and towns from receiving grants to facilitate election administration, and limiting absentee-ballot drop boxes to one location per city, village, or town, no matter its size. By contrast, Evers’ budget includes a variety of provisions, including expanded early voting and automatic voter registration, to make voting easier for everyone—regardless of political party.

Despite the wild claims Republicans—including Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI)—have made in service of the Big Lie that President Biden did not win the Presidential election, none of these bills are about election integrity. The integrity of the 2020 election is beyond question—it was challenged repeatedly in state and federal courts, and not a single court found evidence of significant fraud. Indeed, the cases were so flimsy that courts are now considering whether some of the attorneys who filed them should be disciplined. Republicans are simply trying to make it easier for themselves to win elections by making it harder for Wisconsinites to vote. 

While Wisconsin is hardly alone in facing a GOP threat to our fundamental voting rights, the stakes here are unique. 

The grim reality is that there are many states, including the Electoral College swing states of Arizona and Georgia, where Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and the Governor’s office. Last week, the House of Representatives passed H.R.1, which would safeguard voting rights around the country. But that bill appears to face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Democrats might have to find 50 Senators willing to vote to reform or eliminate the filibuster. If H.R.1 stalls, new voter suppression bills will almost certainly become law in states where Republicans hold trifectas.

By contrast, there are Democratic governors in the three so-called “blue wall” states: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And of those states, Wisconsin had the closest margins in both the 2018 gubernatorial and 2020 presidential elections. In fact, there’s only one state that’s had less than 1% margins in four of the last six presidential elections: Wisconsin.

Governors ready to block Republican voter suppression are critical to maintaining the blue wall in the Midwest and the pathway to Democratic presidential victories. 

But let’s be very clear: this isn’t just about Democrats. It’s about democracy. Our system of government only works if voters get to pick their representatives—not the other way around. 

We’ve seen what happens when Republicans sweep the Assembly, Senate, and Governor’s offices and take total control of a state like Wisconsin. Between 2011 and 2018, Scott Walker and his allies in the legislature used their power to change the rules and tilt their playing field to their own advantage. First, they took aim at our elections, with laws aimed at making it harder for likely Democrats to vote. Simultaneously, they used divide-and-conquer strategies to bust unions, because they know that organized labor drives cross-racial solidarity and mobilization for economic justice for working families. And finally, they redrew the electoral maps with one of the most blatant gerrymandering schemes in the country.

We still live with the consequences of Wisconsin Republicans’ war on free and fair elections today. In the 2016 presidential election, thanks in part to new voter ID laws, Wisconsin turned red for the first time since 1984, helping deliver the White House to Donald Trump. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) even admitted that was the point of the restrictions. And because of the 2011 gerrymandering, Republicans have near-supermajorities in the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate, even though our state is among the most perfectly purple in the nation.

Across lines of race, class, geography, and even political party, we should all be able to agree that Wisconsin and our country are strongest when our government reflects voters’ wishes. For the last two years, Evers has been a bulwark against the further erosion of that core principle. Today, Wisconsin Republicans are more zealous than ever in their march against democracy, and with the Arizona case now under review, the Supreme Court seems poised to further clear the path. 

The conclusion is simple: If we believe in a representative government of, by, and for the people, we must make it our mission to re-elect Evers and his fellow midwestern Democrats in 2022.

Ben Wikler is chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin