Imagine, for a moment, that you were observing an election in a country widely believed to be an emerging, fragile democracy. Imagine that the ruling party lost the popular vote, but then rather than conceding defeat and handing over power to the incoming party they instead went on a law-making spree deliberately designed to hamper the ability of the new party to deliver on its election pledges and make it harder for their supporters to vote in the future. It wouldn’t be a struggle to identify this as a major violation of democratic norms and the principle of respecting the popular vote.
That’s pretty much what’s happening in Wisconsin now.
Democrats won every state-wide seat in Wisconsin’s midterm elections as well as 54 per cent of the popular vote for the House, but because of Republican gerrymandering the GOP has retained its majority in the state legislature (in fact, despite their popular victory, Democrats hold just 36 of 99 House seats).
In response, Republican lawmakers on 5 December voted to pass a bill that strips power from the incoming Democratic governor Tony Evers and the attorney-general Josh Kaul. The bill will make it harder for Evans to fulfil his promises to withdraw from a national lawsuit against the expansion of the Affordable Care Act, to expand infrastructure spending, and to overhaul the state’s economic development agency. It will also make it difficult for him to reverse the state’s voter ID laws (which disproportionately impact black voters, who mostly vote Democrat) and removes his oversight from many other legal matters.
Only one Republican state senator sided with the Democrats against his own party and declined to vote in favour of the bill.
Nor were Republican politicians coy about their true intentions. They spoke of their desire to rebalance the power between the different branches of government, but acknowledged that the power imbalance did not bother them while the Republican governor Scott Walker held office.
“We do not believe that any one individual should have the opportunity to come in and with the stroke of a pen eliminate laws that have been passed by our legislature and found constitutional by our courts,” Robin Vos, the speaker of the state assembly, told reporters – as though it were not a healthy and welcome feature of democratic government that politicians can undo unpopular measures.
The bill did not, thankfully, pass in full: among the other proposed measures were moving forward the 2020 primary in order to favour the election of a conservative Supreme Court judge, and banning voting earlier than two weeks before the election (another move that would have disproportionately impacted Democratic voters).
It remains to be seen if Walker will approve the bill and hamper his successor, or if he will stand up for democratic principles.
This is not just a Wisconsin problem. Republican state legislators are moving to strip powers from an incoming Democratic governor in Michigan as well. Both are following the model set by Republican lawmakers in North Carolina in 2016, who tried to hamper the incoming Democratic governor Roy Cooper. Many of the Republican measures were eventually overturned by the courts, after a costly and extended legal battle.
As with the Republican efforts, particularly pronounced in Georgia, to use restrictive voting laws to suppress Democratic voters, these power-grabs by state legislators point to an alarming willingness by the GOP to break with long-held democratic norms ir order to cling onto power by any means possible.
Writing for the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute, Walter Shapiro, a journalist and lecturer in political science at Yale, observed:
“For most of my four decades covering politics, I clung to the high-minded theory that there was not some vast moral chasm separating Republican and Democratic political operatives. Each side, I believed, did what it had to do tactically, roughly following the theories of the old-time Tammany Hall political boss who said, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”
But now I have serious doubts. It is bad enough that restricting voting has become a staple of GOP electoral strategy. Not surprisingly, the Wisconsin lame-duck legislation also includes a provision to limit early voting in the state to two weeks — even though a similar law passed in 2013 was struck down by a court.
Even more ominous for the future of democracy, the Republicans have become the party of “elections don’t really count.”
Political observers often lament President Donald Trump’s total disregard for America’s democratic norms and institutions, but he will eventually lose power – whether in 2020, 2024 or before. Even more worrying is the extent to which this contempt for the popular vote now extends to his Republican colleagues, who aren’t going anywhere – and are willing to fight dirty to make sure of it.