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Defending Democracy in Wisconsin | Opinion

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by Ruth Conniff, Wisconsin Examiner
September 15, 2023

Wisconsin is Ground Zero for attacks on democracy, which generated a tsunami of news from the Capitol this week.

On Thursday, as Henry Redman reports, Republicans in the Senate voted to remove the state’s highly respected, nonpartisan administrator of elections, Meagan Wolfe, in order to appease election conspiracy theorists. Meanwhile, in the Assembly, Speaker Robin Vos trotted out his hastily drafted “nonpartisan” redistricting plan, in a last-minute gambit to keep control of Wisconsin’s voting maps.

Vos’ sudden conversion to an “Iowa-style” redistricting process — which conveniently omits safeguards for a nonpartisan outcome and instead allows the Legislature to vote down and rewrite any map it doesn’t like —  is just an end run around the new liberal majority on the state Supreme Court, which could soon take up a gerrymandering case and potentially allow someone other than Vos to draw new maps.

Vos also announced this week that a panel of handpicked former justices will advise him on his outlandish threat to impeach Justice Janet Protasiewicz for daring to describe Wisconsin’s worst-in-the-nation gerrymandered maps as “rigged.” 

Republicans are maneuvering to flout the will of the voters, who chose Protasiewicz by a whopping 11 points over the GOP-supported candidate in the recent election, and who overwhelmingly disapprove of the threats to impeach her. And they are working to undermine confidence in elections generally as part of their long-term effort to entrench minority rule.

Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe speaks at a virtual press conference after the state Senate voted to fire her on Sept. 14. (Screenshot)

“We have to recognize we’re up against a nationally coordinated, multifaceted, multi-year attempt to dismantle democracy in our country,” says Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, speaking by phone from our neighboring state to the east, as she watched the events unfolding in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is among a handful of states “in the eye of the storm,” says Benson. “What happens in Wisconsin is really a microcosm for the battles that are playing out small and large around the country.”

Benson has a unique perspective on Wisconsin’s struggles. As the chief elections officer in Michigan she has made it her mission to combat misinformation and disinformation about elections and defend elections officials who are facing escalating threats because of conspiracy theories. 

“Michigan and Wisconsin are really closely aligned in our challenges facing democracy,” Benson says. “We’ve seen both of our states inundated with conspiracy theories and falsehoods, candidates promoting lies about our elections all to serve their political goals, and [actors in] both of our states try to overturn our election results.” 

Michigan voters recently did away with partisan gerrymandering through a 2018 ballot initiative. Before that, the state’s voting maps locked in Republican control of the Legislature even in years when Democrats got more votes statewide (sound familiar?) Under fair maps, Democrats won majorities in both houses of the Legislature in 2022 for the first time in 40 years. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Danal Nessel and Benson, who were elected in 2018, have been fighting an aggressive attack on democratic institutions, including by menacing, armed militia members who invaded the state Capitol. 

It’s inspiring to see them win in the face of such threats.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson holds a press conference on the porch of the Grand Hotel during the Mackinac Policy Conference on May 31, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

“What we found in Michigan is that speaking to voters, telling the truth and working across state borders collectively to battle challenges that we’re facing together is key,” says Benson.

She sees Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski as an ally in that fight.

Even though the Wisconsin secretary of state is not the state’s chief election officer, she does play a role in ensuring that accurate election results are transmitted to the U.S. Capitol, helping voters understand how to participate in elections, and in being “a voice for democracy,” Benson says. “I’m really thrilled to have her as a partner in that work,” she says of Godlewski, whom she describes as “a breath of fresh air.”

Wisconsin Republicans, on the other hand, have already put a  target on Godlewski’s back. In March, after she was appointed, they passed a nonbinding resolution demanding that Evers call a special election to fill the seat. As with Protasiewicz and Wolfe, Republican legislators have made a point of undermining Godlewski, suggesting there is something suspicious about her predecessor Doug LaFollette’s decision to retire right after he won reelection and describing her appointment as “shameful” and a “backroom deal.”

Republicans had no such concerns when former Republican Gov. Scott Walker appointed Dan Kelly and Rebecca Bradley to fill seats on the Wisconsin Supreme Court through the same process.

Godlewski, meanwhile, has been settling into her new role, traveling to every corner of the state, holding meetings to explain to local clerks what a secretary of state does and to ask how they can work together.

The energy she is bringing to a relatively low-power office is reminiscent of her first foray into public life in 2018 after leading a campaign to defeat a ballot measure that would have eliminated Wisconsin’s state treasurer. Voters agreed with Godlewski that losing the public oversight provided by the treasurer’s office was a bad idea, and they elected her to the position she helped preserve.

As Benson told her shortly after Evers appointed her to her current office, she’s up against the enemies of democracy who rely on “chaos, changing the rules and spreading disinformation. … We’re not going to let them win.”

Godlewski is working to boost civic engagement. Her first priority is a modernization effort she launched in May to create a one-stop online shop for records requests.

Her office is also launching a civic education initiative on National Voter Registration Day next week, in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club.

Wisconsin is the fourth hardest state to vote in, Godlewski points out. As in Michigan, local elections clerks have faced threats and intimidation, as well as a flood of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Sarah Godlewski (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“I got into state politics because I was worried about the destruction of democracy and the effort to get rid of the state treasurer’s office and the checks and balances it provides,” she told me over coffee recently. “I’m almost in this place again — people trying to delegitimize what we do.”

 “I think the bottom line with Wisconsin is that voters have the power to end the chaos and fight through the fear tactics and conspiracy theories,” Benson says, “and elect leaders on both sides of the aisle who will uphold the basic principles of who we are as a country.” 

The attacks on Wolfe, Protasiewicz and Godlewski are a lot like the attacks in Michigan on Whitmer, Nessel and Benson. If they succeed, it’s a home run for a minority that wants to control the state and thinks it shouldn’t have to answer to the public. If they fail, there’s hope for democracy. 

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.

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Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.