The tweets were full of rage. As officials began to tally the results of the tight ballots, many voters suspected fraud. After all, there had been allegations of election misconduct before, as well as lost-and-found votes. Trust in government officials didn’t run high. By late in the evening, one opposition party leader came forward, accusing a local election official of “tampering with the results.” Fears of a political backlash rose. Soon there were even suggestions of violence. The scene wasn’t the site of some Arab Spring-inspired revolution. It was Wisconsin in August 2011. Wisconsin residents had just voted on whether to recall a number of state senators, with the potential to flip the legislative body from Republican to Democratic hands. The vote totals were rolling in from polling places across the state, and I was following the reaction of hundreds of political junkies tweeting about the results using the hashtag #wirecall. That evening provides a window into what the world could look like should we be unlucky enough to have our next presidential election as close as the 2000 presidential election. Wisconsin could be our future, and it’s not a pretty picture.
In 2000, just a few hundred votes out of millions cast in the state of Florida separated Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush from his Democratic opponent, Al Gore. The outcome of the election rested on Florida’s 25 electoral votes, and legal wrangling continued for 36 days. Then, abruptly, one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history, Bush v. Gore, cut short the battle. But partisans learned that it is worth fighting tooth-and-nail over election rules. Since the Florida debacle, we have witnessed an ideologically fueled war over election rules. Election litigation has skyrocketed, and election time brings out inevitable accusations of voter fraud and voter suppression. These allegations have shaken public confidence, as campaigns deploy “armies of lawyers” and the partisan press revs up when elections are close and the stakes are high. Wisconsin shows us that social media is bound to make things much, much worse than they were in 2000.
By 2010, Wisconsin’s politics had already become among the most polarized in the nation. The election of Republican Scott Walker as governor and some of his early legislative initiatives—in particular, a new law curtailing the power of public sector labor unions—had contributed to the ideological rancor. After Walker’s victory but before the Senate recall elections, Wisconsin voters voted in an expensive and ugly state Supreme Court race that would determine the ideological balance of the court. The court at the time was mired in a partisan spat unconnected to Walker. Someone had leaked an internal court email from a few years earlier in which incumbent Republican Justice David Prosser called Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a well-respected Democratic jurist, “a total bitch,” a claim that repeated again and again in anti-Prosser television ads.