Editor’s Note: Ben Wikler is the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Previously, he served as Washington, DC, director of MoveOn.org. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last week, a judge appointed by a Republican governor used an extreme and malicious interpretation of a Wisconsin state voting law to throw roughly 234,000 state voters off the rolls.
The decision on a case brought by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, concerns a state law that requires the Wisconsin Elections Commission to keep voting rolls up to date. Under the law, the Commission sends letters to voters suspected of having moved based on “reliable information.” Those who don’t respond within 30 days are then purged from the rolls.
The legal dispute is over what constitutes “reliable information.” In this case, the data is from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a useful but imperfect tool to compare voter registrations across states. The commission planned to spend the next 12 to 24 months assessing individual cases to gather enough “reliable information” on whether they had indeed moved.
But the lawsuit demanded that the Commission not double-check, and simply de-register every voter flagged by ERIC. The judge agreed. The Wisconsin Department of Justice has already filed an appeal on behalf of the Commission.
That’s how, by undermining what constitutes “reliable information,” conservatives obtained a ruling that disproportionately targets Democratic voters and throws up needless barriers to voting in next year’s presidential election in a state that President Donald Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016.
This voter purge is a barely disguised ploy to rig our democracy and win the 2020 election. It comes on the heels of remarks made by a top reelection adviser for Trump to fellow Republicans in Wisconsin, who said that “traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places.” (The adviser later said his remarks were taken out of context.) It’s part of a broader conservative playbook being implemented across the country in which the goal is not to win democratic elections but to destroy democracy in order to win elections.
For a while, Wisconsin has been ground zero for tilting the electoral playing field.
In Wisconsin, the architect of this playbook was former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who right after his election in 2010 focused on passing legislation that would to destroy the underpinnings of our free and fair election system. He implemented one of the harshest voter ID laws in the nation, restricted early voting hours, allowed partisan election observers to get close to voters and poll workers at polling places, and took part in an unprecedented effort for partisan redistricting. He manipulated state laws for political advantage and changed campaign finance rules to disadvantage unions and empower the wealthiest Americans who can now give unlimited contributions to Wisconsin political parties, who can in turn make unlimited contributions to state candidates.
In 2012, thanks to the system-rigging efforts of Walker and his allies, Republicans won more seats than Democrats in the House of Representatives despite Democrats winning a majority of the popular vote, expanded their majority in the State Assembly and flipped the State Senate — all while Wisconsinites overwhelmingly favored Barack Obama statewide.
By comparison, in next door Minnesota — where a Democratic governor meant GOP shenanigans couldn’t become law — a similar Obama margin resulted in Democratic majorities in the state legislature that year.
As a result of Wisconsin’s undemocratic elections, otherwise popular measures like gun violence prevention laws are stalled. Meanwhile, policies that sought to destroy the ability of working people to organize were passed, including ACT 10 — which capped wage increases that were collectively bargained — and the Right to Work bill, all undermining a well-known Democratic constituency’s power to make their voices heard. The lasting effect on voters’ ability to express their voice has been clear, with tens of thousands of Wisconsinites likely not voting in 2016 due to the strict voter ID laws.
And even after they got voted out in 2018, Republicans found ways to strip incoming Democratic officials of their powers. In a lame-duck session of the GOP state legislature, they required the governor and attorney general to obtain permission from GOP-controlled legislative committees on key decisions and tried to further restrict early voting and lock in the harshest enforcement of their voter ID laws, although these provisions lost in court. The ongoing effort to prevent majority, small-d democratic decision-making in Wisconsin is what this voter purge is all about.
Unfortunately, it’s not just Wisconsin where Republicans are suppressing the vote. This playbook has been used in swing states across the country. In just the past couple weeks, GOP Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger removed nearly 309,000 voters from the rolls — 4% of the electorate. In Ohio, an Associated Press review found thousands of absentee applications were denied last year because of missing or mismatched signatures.
And, in Florida, the legal fight over restoring voting rights for hundreds of thousands of ex-felons continues, even after a ballot measure passed nearly 2-1 to do so, in a state where former Gov. Rick Scott was elected to the US Senate in 2018 by slightly more than 10,000 votes after years of undermining access to the ballot box. He added yet another GOP seat in a Senate that continues to be unrepresentative of American voters, partially because close to 700,000 residents in Washington DC don’t have a senator at all.
We’ve seen attempts at renouncing this playbook in the past. Following Mitt Romney’s presidential defeat in 2012, the GOP recognized that the party itself would need to change in fundamental ways to win in the vibrant, multiracial democracy that America is. Instead of changing itself, however, the party chose to rig the rules so it could win with a smaller, whiter, older and more right-wing electorate that is not representative of the rest of the country.
All is not lost in Wisconsin. Republicans have not been able to eliminate same-day voter registration — a critical tool for making voting easier and one that has been proven to increase turnout — and we can organize to re-register purged voters. But there are other states who don’t have same day voter registration or such back-up plans.
At the federal level, Democrats in the House of Representatives acted to address this problem, passing the For the People Act, bold democracy reform legislation that includes provisions that would make voting easier and tackle voter suppression head on. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to even bring it up for a vote. Maybe because he knows Republicans are using these very suppression tactics to try and swing elections in places like Wisconsin.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The promise of our democracy is one person, one vote, and fair and free elections, but because of one party’s constant attacks on the system, we need structural reforms to live up to that promise. In Wisconsin and across the country, our reforms must include stronger voting rights, a fair process for drawing voting districts, campaign finance reform, statehood for Washington, DC, Puerto Rican self-determination, empowering civic and worker organizations and other reforms.
We need a bold, comprehensive effort to reform the system once and for all: progress made toward a more functioning democracy through one or two reforms will always risk getting undermined by ill-intentioned bills, court decisions, and restrictions to the vote.
Whatever happens with this purge, which may be taken up by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, we must not lose sight of the broader fight. It’s not just Republicans and Democrats on the ballot, it’s democracy itself.