Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker addresses members of the media from his office in Madison, Wisc., for the first time after failing to win re-election in the 2018 race.
John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal/AP
Three months have passed since that fleeting, anonymous New York Times op-ed from a Trump staffer claiming that she or he was busy trying to save us from the president’s agenda and “his worst inclinations.” The piece was largely useless, but it was entertaining. Conservatives who have remained silent about Republican disenfranchisement were inspired, in their own way, to defend voting rights.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Majority Leader, declared in a letter to the Times that the writer was “thwarting the wishes of the legitimately elected president from within the executive branch.” The Federalist’s David Harsanyi, a Libertarian, argued that the op-ed “celebrates the idea of nullifying an election.” Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, wrote in his own op-ed that “if the American people don’t like what Donald Trump is doing, they can elect a Democratic House and-or Senate this fall,” adding that this is “how our system was meant to work and be responsive to the will of the people.”
There is often an inherent whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality associated with the term “people” when Republicans use the word. The party has only one demonstrated strategy for competing in a browning America: Whiten it, physically and electorally. Republican cheating has grown so pervasive that we have come to expect it, especially since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. We now expect these abhorrent laws, and to see “Voter Fraud is a Felony!” billboards in black neighborhoods. The genius of their persistence is that we get used to this nonsense.
It is why we are failing, as a country, to show concern about what is happening in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina right now. The voter disenfranchisement on display in these three states is an extension of broader Republican efforts to reject the will of those citizens who vote in ways they don’t like, the same people who are most likely to block their path to power in future elections. The devil takes many forms, as does voter suppression.
Mark Harris, a Baptist preacher who considers Islam to be “Satanic,” won May’s GOP primary for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. After the November 6th general election, the Associated Press prematurely called the race in his favor. Leading by a mere 905 votes over his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, Harris’ win seemed close but certain. However, the state’s Board of Elections has twice refused to certify the victory, citing irregularities with absentee ballots. The board may order a new election on December 21st when it meets to review the mounting evidence that Harris and his campaign engaged in illegal activity that disproportionately affected voters of color.
Further reporting revealed suspicious vote counts favoring Harris in certain counties with large numbers of unreturned ballots. Both Popular Information and WSOC reporter Joe Bruno then revealed on Monday that Harris’ campaign used (and possibly paid) workers to collect ballots, many of which were never returned. The mere act of “harvesting” is against the law in North Carolina — something that apparently didn’t trouble L. McCrae Dowless, Jr., the Harris campaign political consultant and convicted felon who is most directly linked to the illegal ballot collections. Harris did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
If these allegations are true, we now have an example of a Republican not just committing election fraud, but resorting to a form of organized crime to help the party hold onto a House seat. What is happening in Wisconsin and Michigan, though, is nothing less than a defecation on democracy.
In those states, there is no question who won. Voters in both Wisconsin and Michigan elected Democrats to take over for their appalling Republican governors: Tony Evers to replace the anti-labor villain Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Gretchen Whitmer to oust Flint disaster architect Rick Snyder in Michigan. Yet the Republican-led state legislatures in both states were kept in power by gerrymandered districts. Democrats netted nearly 200,000 more votes in Wisconsin last month, but state Republicans increased their slight senate majority and walked away with 63 of the 99 assembly seats. A Michigan ballot proposal to reign in partisan redistricting passed in November, but Republicans still retained majorities in both houses.
Now, Republicans in Wisconsin have just passed legislation that amounts to an assault on the state’s rule of law. It will strip Evers of powers that he doesn’t even have yet. It will prevent the new governor and the incoming state Attorney General, Democrat Josh Kaul, from withdrawing from litigation against the Affordable Care without the permission of the Republican majority. The measure also usurps Kaul’s job, giving many of his powers to the state legislative branch. Consider a state law unconstitutional? The Republicans in the statehouse will not only be able to intervene and prevent the attorney general from settling any claims — a provision will allow them to “retain legal counsel other than the Department of Justice.” The state’s top lawyer has essentially been fired before he even takes the job, without the say of the plurality of voters who hired him to represent their interests.
Wisconsin has an incoming Democratic trifecta: Evers and Kaul will join a re-elected secretary of state, Douglas La Follette, who is a victim of a similar power grab. In a state with rampant voter suppression, outgoing governor Scott Walker cut La Follette’s staff from 50 to one and stuck his office in the basement. The bills Republicans just passed will help neuter that office in a different way— slashing early voting schedules again, a move that was blocked in 2016 by a federal district judge who concluded that doing so discriminated on the basis of race. Now that Trump has five reliable enablers of voter suppression on the U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps Wisconsin’s GOP is willing to give this another shot. They are also trying to move a state Supreme Court election in 2020, despite there being no need to do so. As journalist Mark Joseph Stern argued, this is designed to discourage voter turnout and prevent a liberal takeover of the body.
Wisconsin’s Republican Senate leader, Scott Fitzgerald, said the quiet part out loud in a conservative talk radio interview on Monday, calling his next governor a “lap dog” for teachers’ unions and saying that “we don’t trust Tony Evers right now.” His will, and presumably that of 17 other sitting GOP state senators, outweighs the collective will of the state that the governor is allegedly supposed to represent.
In a crack-of-the-morning vote Wednesday, Wisconsin’s Senate passed the sweeping measures by one vote, 17-16. Then the state assembly passed it, and outgoing Gov. Scott Walker will sign it into law. Lame-duck power grabs aren’t new for him, nor for Republicans nationwide. The assembly’s Republican speaker, Robin Vos, defended this by saying that he was sticking up for the voters in his district. “Where I live, people have said do whatever you have to do to make sure the reforms that have been positive for Wisconsin don’t go away,” he said via the assembly’s Twitter a day before the vote.
This mirrors what North Carolina Republicans pulled in 2016, seeking to limit the powers of Democrat Roy Cooper after voters elected him governor that year. Michigan saw that blueprint, and as the state welcomes its own Democratic trifecta — the first in 28 years — Republicans there have proposed new measures that would neuter the incoming governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Protecting unconstitutional measures, such as one that allows adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples, is taking priority over that will of the voter we hear so much about.
Voter suppression is not merely about gerrymandering, closing polling places and requiring IDs to shape an electorate. It is a declaration that only Republicans are allowed to run things, even when the voters say otherwise, and that any challenges to their power are invalid. We worry, rightfully, about what Trump does and will do to our democracy. He soils it with his lies about undocumented voting and his encouragement of intimidation at the polls. But the embarrassment of his “voter fraud” panel demonstrated that he is actually rather ineffective at suppressing votes. Trump is a small man, but that isn’t why this is bigger than him. When it comes to protecting Republican power for themselves and their shrinking white electorate, the real pros are at the state level.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor of North Carolina in 2016. We regret the error.