Wisconsin-based reporter John Nichols co-chairs the National Commission for Voter Justice, an organization committed to promoting citizen participation in our elections. He’s had a front row seat as his state’s governor has taken the lead in a national effort to suppress voter turnout, particularly among left-leaning groups and demographics.
Gov. Scott Walker and his cronies have worked hard to tip the balance against competitive elections in Wisconsin — with extreme gerrymandering, restrictive voter ID requirements, schemes to limit early voting, and an assault on the independence and integrity of the former Government Accountability Board.
Walker has emerged as a national leader in the corporate-sponsored push to upend practices and procedures that are designed to make voting easy. This has put the governor and many of his closest allies — including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville — at odds with Wisconsin’s historic commitment to high-turnout elections.
Not every Wisconsinite Republican has been willing to along:
Former state Senate Majority Leader Dale Schultz broke with the Republican caucus in 2014 on voting rights issues, telling Wisconsin radio hosts Mike Crute and Dominic Salvia: “I am not willing to defend them anymore. I’m just not and I’m embarrassed by this.”
“It’s just sad when a political party has so lost faith in its ideas that it’s pouring all of its energy into election mechanics,” explained Schultz, who did not seek re-election that year. “We should be pitching as political parties our ideas for improving things in the future rather than mucking around in the mechanics and making it more confrontational at the voting sites and trying to suppress the vote.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in their 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner tried to rectify the situation:
The official biography of one of Wisconsin’s senior Republicans, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, proudly declares: “Throughout his tenure in Congress, Jim has fought to protect the gains made during the civil rights movement. As Judiciary Committee chairman, he introduced the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006. After approximately 20 hearings, the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. However, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of this law. After, Jim introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, a bipartisan, bicameral modernization of the original 1965 law that ensures Americans’ most sacred right is protected.”
Sensenbrenner continues to advocate for the revitalization of the Voting Rights Act — along with Congressional Black Caucus members such as Milwaukee Congresswoman Gwen Moore and Georgia Congressman John Lewis.
Sensenbrenner does not have many Republican co-sponsors for his legislation. But he is undaunted. “Ensuring that every eligible voter can cast a ballot without fear, deterrence and prejudice is a basic American right,” he explained several years ago. “I would rather lose my job than suppress votes to keep it.”
But Sensenbrenner has been stymied by his colleagues in the House of Representatives. The Republicans (state and federal) have moved full steam ahead to gain every ounce of advantage they can out of the Holder v. Shelby ruling. Meanwhile, recent Supreme Court rulings have gone even further to help Republicans game elections through racially motivated gerrymandering and voter purges.
Last week, Stanford political science professor Adam Bonica wrote a column for the New York Times that helped explain both why the Republicans are so motivated to mess with people’s voting rights and why the Democrats would be well-advised to fight back as forcefully as possible.
The simplest way of explaining this is that the demographics and voting preferences of the electorate have developed in such a way that higher voter turnout helps the Democrats and hurts the Republicans. This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, it gives the Republicans a strong motivation to discourage civic engagement and participation, and to go after people’s voting rights and all efforts to make voting easier and more convenient. Second, it makes the Democrats look like they’re being partisan when they promote civic engagement and participation and work to protect people’s voting rights. From the Republicans’ point of view, easier registration, more days of early voting, more voting machines/shorter lines, vote-by-mail, etc., are all partisan efforts to take away their jobs and their majorities. And, the thing is, it’s simply true that they’ll generally do worse if more people vote.
There’s two conflicting values at play here. It’s a seriously dangerous development that one party is so threatened and frankly disadvantaged by voter participation that they (with a major assist from the Supreme Court) are systematically looking to roll back voting rights and reforms. The more the Democrats push back, the less consensus on the basic American value of representative democracy there will be. Yet, if the Republicans are the only ones willing to use their power to shape electoral law, they will ultimately succeed in their quest to destroy our system of government and the values that underpin it.
That’s why the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly is dedicated to convincing the Democratic Party to take up the banner of civic participation and voting rights. Our editor-in-chief explains the game plan in Winning Is Not Enough and he also discussed it in a The Hill television interview (watch here) yesterday with Krystal Ball. Some of his ideas are echoed in Prof. Bonica’s piece, including statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington DC, and universal vote-by-mail.
At the conclusion of his argument explaining all the ways that Democrats can benefit from higher voter participation, Prof. Bonica offered the following rationale:
This is not about weaponizing electoral institutions for partisan gain; it is about delivering on the promise of American democracy. The nation is at its best when democracy is on the rise. Many of our most celebrated figures — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez — fought to enfranchise the disenfranchised and left a more inclusive republic as their legacy. Let’s finish what they started.
It’s a genuine problem that things have developed in such a way that “delivering on the promise of American democracy” by encouraging people to participate in our civic life and protecting their right and ability to do so is synonymous with partisan gain for the Democratic Party. But that’s where we are. Fighting to win elections has become fighting to have meaningful elections at all.
I’d argue that young voters will eventually get older and participate at higher levels, and given their strong distaste for the Republican Party, that will wipe away the Republicans’ ability to undermine our democracy. But there’s the rather large matter of the Supreme Court. It is setting up to have a strong conservative majority for the next few decades, and that’s going to mean that this war will not end on favorable terms anytime soon.
What’s certain is that the Democratic Party can’t avoid this fight.