Democracy dies in darkness because Republicans wait until after dark to kill it.
That’s what happened last night, and before sunrise this morning, in Wisconsin. The state’s GOP-run state legislature used an extraordinary session to strip powers from the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general and roll back voting rights.
When they unveiled the bills, Wisconsin’s Republican legislative chiefs — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — wrote in a statement that “The legislature is the most representative branch in government,” as though the bills were a defense of democracy.
The truth is, Wisconsin’s GOP power grab took place precisely because the state GOP is afraid of democracy. That fear is etched all over the bills — dubbed the “Wisconsin power grab” — that lawmakers just rammed through the statehouse.
First, some critical context: in Wisconsin, the legislature is not, in fact, the most representative branch. It’s the least. In terms of vote totals, they’re the losers of the 2018 elections. Republican State Assembly candidates only racked up 46 percent of the vote, compared to 54 percent for Democrats. But because of extreme gerrymandering, they wound up with 64 percent of the State Assembly seats. In fact, there’s a chance that the gerrymandered map will be thrown out by the Supreme Court next year.
But gerrymandering can’t stop Democrats from winning statewide races. Perhaps that’s why Wisconsin Republicans just moved to stomp out early voting. Wisconsin counties set their own early voting rules, and the biggest cities — Milwaukee and Madison — allowed early voting for six weeks. Republican lawmakers claimed that this rankled their (often rural) constituents. But rather than expanding early voting to all parts of the state, they decided to limit the early vote everywhere to two weeks, in an obvious move to prevent heavily Democratic areas from repeating the high turnout that just torpedoed Republican governor Scott Walker’s bid for a third term.
Preventing future votes is one thing. But the GOP also moved to nullify the effects of votes already cast — by stripping away authority from newly elected Democratic Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul.
The new rules block the governor and attorney general from fulfilling one of their signature campaign promises: to withdraw Wisconsin from the multistate lawsuit to torpedo the Affordable Care Act and eliminate protections for people with preexisting conditions.
In fact, the Republicans’ new laws would require the Republican-controlled state legislature’s permission before the attorney general can get involved in any litigation challenging a federal law. And when a state law is challenged, it would give the state legislature the right to usurp the attorney general’s authority, letting state lawmakers hire private attorneys at taxpayer expense to try the case their way. Meanwhile, the governor would be stripped of his normal powers as the state’s negotiating partner with the federal government. Going forward, anytime Wisconsin seeks a modification, waiver, or tweak on its implementation of a federal law, Governor Evers will need the state legislature’s permission.
It’s nothing short of a legislative coup.
As the votes neared, legislative leaders began to let the mask slip about the true intention of their legislation.
If these bills don’t pass, Assembly leader Robin Vos warned his colleagues near midnight on Tuesday, “we are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”
“We don’t trust Tony Evers,” Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told reporters on Monday.
They might not believe in Tony Evers’s policies. They might not trust him. But, as former House candidate Randy Bryce testified to a legislative committee later that night, “Voters do.”
Fitzgerald, who won 49,051 votes in 2018, and Vos, who received 16,775 votes this year, do not have a small-d democratic mandate to overrule Tony Evers, who was elected with majority support and 1.33 million votes. But for the moment, they have the power to do so — so they are.
The Republicans do not have the moral high ground here, and they know it. More than likely, that’s why they chose a strategy of secrecy and haste in order to ram their bills through the legislature.
The bills were kept secret until the afternoon of Friday, November 30. The lone hearing on the bills took place on Monday — and the bill’s author, Robin Vos, refused to so much as testify in favor of them. (In fact, according to staff on the Joint Finance Committee, of the 1,426 constituents who registered to testify, six spoke for informational purposes only, 1,420 spoke against — and zero spoke in favor.) Then, amidst thunderous protests from constituents and from Democratic colleagues, Republicans amended and passed their bills through committee late at night, once television newscasts were over. They repeated this pattern the following night on the Senate and Assembly floor. After all-night vote-wrangling sessions, the bills cleared the State Senate on Wednesday at 6:04 am and the State Assembly at 8:20 am.
It was a shocking result. But hope survives. Because although Wisconsin’s Republican leaders may be afraid of democracy, democracy is not afraid of them.
Even in this final moment of total Republican control of Wisconsin’s government, one of the GOP’s most ridiculous proposals fell apart due to public outcry. Republicans had planned to move the date of the 2020 presidential primary, at cost of nearly $7 million, from April to March, in order to prevent it from taking place on the same day as the April 7 State Supreme Court race. The goal: keep the Court’s 5-4 Republican majority by saving the seat of hard-right Supreme Court Justice David Kelly. As Republican Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald explained, “Justice Kelly would have a better chance if there’s not really this competitive Democrat primary for president.”
Nearly every County Clerk in Wisconsin came out against the proposal, calls flooded state legislative lines — and that idea died in committee.
Other proposals passed. But the power grab is temporary. These laws will be laws challenged in court. Even if they survive, they will one day be repealed. After the 2020 census, Republicans won’t have the trifecta control of Wisconsin that they’d need to keep their gerrymander in place — because Tony Evers will still be governor. Which means that, from 2022 through 2030, Wisconsin legislative races will be fought on fair terrain once again.
And in the meantime, even though Tony Evers and Josh Kaul won’t have all the powers that Wisconsinites believed they were voting for them to obtain, the new governor and attorney general will still have the power to make a difference. To become law, bills will still need the governor’s signature. The budget will still come from the administration. The Wisconsin power grab may be anti-democratic, but at the end of the day, it represents the death rattle of anti-democratic Republican rule.
The most powerful position in the state will now be in the hands of the person who, as vote counts demonstrate, is actually the most representative of the people of Wisconsin: Tony Evers.