Is ‘democracy on the ballot’ in Wisconsin? Here’s how voting rules could change under GOP scrutiny
Less than two weeks before Election Day, former President Barack Obama was in Milwaukee to present the Wisconsin Democrats’ closing arguments in the midterm elections. Addressing a packed high school gymnasium, he had Democrats screaming as he spoke about the economy, abortion rights and helping people pay their bills.
Then he turned to an issue that is not at the top of every voter’s mind.
“If you need another reason to vote,” Obama said, “consider the fact that democracy is on the ballot.”
Obama spoke at length about democracy – how life has changed since the Jan. 6 uprising and how dangerous the loss of self-government is. For Democrats, the warnings are a way to engage voters who may stay home in a midterm election.
But at the root of this rhetoric is the stark reality that if Republicans win the gubernatorial race or gain an unvetoed majority in the Legislature, they will indeed change the way elections are run in Wisconsin, a state as politically divided as they come. And while they usually describe it as “election integrity,” it also motivates their base.
“There could be big changes to election law in Wisconsin between 2022 and 2024,” said Barry Burden, a professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There’s a range of things that have been offered in a not very concrete way.”
Michels said he would eliminate the Wisconsin Elections Commission, but not what would replace it
If Michels defeats Democratic Governor Tony Evers and wins the governorship, he has promised to eliminate the Wisconsin Elections Commission. How Michels and the legislature would replace him remains unclear.
“There really is no limit to what the Legislative Assembly could do in terms of creating a new structure,” Burden said.
Wisconsin’s last Republican Governor, Scott Walker, created the WEC when he and GOP lawmakers dissolved the state’s Government Accountability Board, which they said had become too partisan in favor of Democrats.
The WEC is led by six commissioners, three of whom are appointed by Republicans and three who are chosen by Democrats. The 3-3 split leads to many tie votes within the Commission.
This deadlock was intentional. Walker and the Republicans said giving Democrats and Republicans an equal number of seats at the table would ensure both parties had an equal voice on contentious issues. When an issue was perceived to favor one side over the other, this 3-3 split nullified it.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the WEC conducted bipartisan votes on a handful of big issues that were later criticized by Republicans.
For example, at the start of the pandemic, commissioners voted not to allow special voting deputies in nursing homes to help residents vote by mail for fear they would spread the coronavirus. Commissioners also voted unanimously to send mail-in ballot applications to about 2.7 million registered voters, another move that was later criticized by Republicans.
Despite these criticisms, GOP lawmakers have so far backed the WEC. In January, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said he thought the way the agency was structured could still work.
“I would need to see a better way to do it before I give up on this,” LeMahieu said.
During a campaign stop in Middleton on Thursday, Michels gave a hint about what the new agency would look like if he were governor.
“I’m going to call it the ‘Wisconsin Election Integrity Group,'” Michels told reporters. “He will have representation from all eight congressional districts.”
But Michels didn’t say who would pick those members, and Burden said nothing would stop Republicans from giving themselves more power to hold an election.
“It would be allowed because they write the law,” Burden said.
Burden said GOP lawmakers could also decide to get rid of the WEC board altogether and appoint someone to oversee the election. They could also choose to give some power over the elections to Wisconsin’s secretary of state if a Republican wins the position this year.
Commissioner Ann Jacobs, one of three Democratic appointees who sit on the WEC, said she was concerned the Legislature would give itself the power to hold federal elections, an idea suggested last year by Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. She said the idea was considered “fringe” until recently.
“My greatest concern is to take away the right of the people to elect their representatives and place it solely in the hands of the Legislative Assembly,” Jacobs said. “I think that would be a devastating blow to democracy in Wisconsin.”
The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that argues that state legislators have the power to hold federal elections without any checks and balances from governors or state courts.
Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said there are many ways Wisconsin can structure its elections, including its selection of presidential voters.
“There’s no requirement that can even be made by popular vote. But I think that’s what people want,” Esenberg said.
Controversial Republican report on 2020 election calls for reducing mail-in voting
Last year, under pressure from former Republican President Donald Trump, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, hired former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to lead an investigation into the United States election. 2020.
Gableman’s final report drew attention when it called on lawmakers to consider decertifying the election, a move favored by Trump that election law experts say is impossible.
But in Gableman’s recommendations was another big recommendation that received far less attention, where Gableman called on lawmakers to “minimize pre-voting.”
“If public oversight of absentee voting is too burdensome,” Gableman wrote, “a better option is to prioritize traditional in-person voting.”
Wisconsin has what’s called no-excuse mail-in voting. If people want to vote by mail, they can, as long as they obey the laws on demand and return of ballots. They don’t need to have a specific reason for not voting at the polls.
He was hugely popular in Wisconsin, especially in the 2020 presidential election, when nearly 2 million residents voted absentee amid a spike in coronavirus infections.
Gableman has since been fired by Vos after Gableman endorsed Vos’ main opponent and recorded a robocall on his behalf.
But Gableman remains influential in Republican politics. When Trump traveled to the state in August to campaign for Michels, he repeatedly shouted at Gableman, who was also in the crowd.
“I want to thank you, Michael, for being here, but I want to thank you much more importantly for the job you’ve done,” Trump said. “It’s an incredible report that you have published.”
Trump is expected to run for president again in 2024. Gableman was also in the crowd when another potential GOP presidential candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, visited Wisconsin.
Jacobs said it would be a mistake for Republicans to reduce absentee voting in Wisconsin.
“I think the exact opposite of how the whole of the United States is going is the exact opposite of what voters want,” Jacobs said.
Esenberg said he doesn’t think that will happen.
“Voter convenience is likely going to win out with these elected officials,” Esenberg said.
Spokespersons for Vos and LeMahieu did not respond to emails asking if they would support Gableman’s recommendation. Michels spoke of limiting specific types of mail-in voting, including by people who claim to be “confined indefinitely” under Wisconsin law.
Republicans have already passed bills to change election laws. Michels pledged to sign them.
There’s no need to guess what the Republicans would do on certain election issues, because they’ve already shown people.
GOP lawmakers passed nearly 20 bills last session that would have made a variety of changes to the way elections are run, in some cases making absentee voting more difficult and making the legislature more powerful. Evers vetoed the plans and Michels said he would sign them.
They included bills that allegedly:
Wisconsin isn’t the only state where GOP lawmakers have pushed to restrict private voter subsidies, a top priority for Republicans, including Trump. In Wisconsin, hundreds of communities have received funds through the grants, though several million dollars have gone to the state’s largest cities.
The most vocal critics of the GOP funding say it was aimed at increasing Democratic voter turnout, but Burden said clerks used it to offset the cost of staging an election during the pandemic. For example, it was used to raise the salaries of election workers, buy protective gear, and pay for high-speed vote tabulators in the city of Milwaukee.
“If private funding is not available and the state doesn’t provide public funding to make up for it, I think the clerks running the elections would definitely feel it,” Burden said. “And that would also trickle down to voters.”
If Evers wins another term and Republicans don’t reach a two-thirds majority, they’ll have to override a governor’s veto, these bills probably aren’t going anywhere, and Wisconsin could maintain the status quo on relates to elections.
Whatever happens, he will be under scrutiny in a state where four of the last six presidential elections have been decided by less than a percentage point.