The voting debacle in Wisconsin on Tuesday was further evidence of an incontrovertible reality in American politics: The Republican Party does not believe in free and fair elections, where free means equal access to the ballot and fair means equitable rules and neutral procedures. Here’s what happened. Last week, once it was clear that coronavirus would make in-person voting unsafe, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, convened a session of the Wisconsin Legislature to find a solution. The Republican majority leader gaveled the chamber in and just as quickly gaveled it out. There would be no session and thus no solution. Republicans wanted to hold the election as is, endangering the lives of voters who went to the polls in the midst of a pandemic. When, on Monday, Evers issued an executive order to push the election to June and give officials time to implement universal vote-by-mail, it was immediately overturned by the conservative majority of the state Supreme Court.
There’s no theory of democracy that renders this acceptable, but then this wasn’t about democracy. It was about power. There were two elections on Tuesday, one for the Democratic presidential primary and the other for the state Supreme Court. On the ballot for the latter was a conservative justice, Daniel Kelly, who, because of Democratic turnout for the presidential primary, might have lost his seat to a liberal challenger. This wouldn’t have changed the overall ideological composition of the court, but it would have weakened the conservative majority’s ability to uphold an extreme gerrymander in the State Legislature.
That extreme gerrymander, drawn in 2011, is the reason Wisconsin Republicans hold nearly two-thirds of the seats in the State Assembly despite winning less than half of the votes statewide. Having fought a fierce battle to make theirs a one-party state — first by dismantling institutions of the opposition with attacks on unions and the university system, then by changing the rules of the game to keep Democrats from winning power — Wisconsin Republicans will do anything to protect their hold on the reins, especially when that power has national implications. Wisconsin is a tipping point state in the upcoming presidential election, and a party that controls the rules of the game is one that can put its thumb on the scale for its allies.
What’s true of Republicans in Wisconsin is true of Republicans nationwide. There is no part of the Republican Party — not its president in the White House, not its leadership in Congress, not its conservative allies on the Supreme Court, not its interest groups or its affiliated media — that has an interest in or commitment to a fair, equal and expansive democracy.
Just look at the last decade. First, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the conservative, Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court opened the door to unlimited campaign spending by corporations, interest groups and wealthy individuals. Then, in Shelby County v. Holder, it swept away the “preclearance” section of the Voting Rights Act, freeing states to adopt new restrictions on voting and ballot access, an invitation they promptly took up. And most recently, in Rucho v. Common Cause, the conservative majority all but gave its blessing to the extreme partisan gerrymandering seen in Wisconsin and other Republican-led states by declaring the issue “nonjudiciable” by federal courts, meaning that they supposedly can’t do anything about it.
Republican lawmakers nationwide have taken every opportunity to restrict voting and entrench themselves against voters who might want an alternative. They’ve passed strict photo ID requirements, implemented mass voter purges, put new restrictions on registering voters, closed polling sites and ended extended voting periods. With few exceptions — Utah introduced vote by mail in 2013 — a state with a Republican executive and a Republican Legislature is a state that will restrict voting long before it tries to make it easier and more accessible.
This is true even after voters take matters into their own hands. In 2018, more than two-thirds of Florida voters endorsed a constitutional amendment to end felon disenfranchisement. Rather than implement the new mandate, the Republican Legislature immediately moved to impose fines on ex-convicts seeking to restore their rights.
The most prominent Republican voice against free and fair elections is, of course, President Trump’s. As the Covid-19 pandemic forced states to postpone voting and adopt contingency plans, he urged his co-partisans to oppose mail-in balloting, which would have ensured that every voter who wanted to could participate. “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
Several states already use mail-in voting, including one — Colorado — with a conservative Republican senator. Millions of ballots have been mailed in during dozens of elections and there’s been no evidence of serious fraud or misconduct. That “tremendous potential” is essentially nonexistent. It seems silly to even argue about this because Trump is not motivated by a sudden impulse toward good government, he’s motivated by partisan advantage. And he believes his side will lose if everyone who wants to vote can cast a ballot.
In this, Trump is no different than most of the rest of his party. Republicans do not believe they can persuade a majority of voters to support their agenda. They’ve practically given up trying. And so they fight to exclude Democratic-leaning voters from the electorate and work to lock the Republican Party’s current advantage into the system itself, to bend and break the rules so that the public can’t actually translate its preferences into power. Rather than do the work of democracy they’ve decided instead to limit democracy itself.