In its lame-duck session early Wednesday, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature worked under cover of night to strip the incoming Democratic governor of the power to administer the law.
This attempt to undermine democracy is the inevitable conclusion of the Republican Party governing without a popular mandate, empowered through partisan gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws. Its modus operandi has become quite clear: If you can’t win elections, rig them. If the rules say you can’t do something, change the rules. Then if voters still elect Democrats, take away their power.
The GOP’s ability to get away with this stems from years of Democrats’ underestimating the importance of state politics. And the only realistic way these assaults on our democracy can be repelled is for Democrats to get serious about the most consequential, and overlooked, part of our political system.
Democrats have to stop viewing statehouses as mere tools of federal power, important only to the extent that they have control over gerrymandering, and recognize that they are powerful and important in their own right.
This isn’t the first such power grab to override the will of voters. In fact, Michigan and Wisconsin Republicans are following a playbook carried out in North Carolina two years ago, where the Republican-led General Assembly passed a similar set of measures to reduce the incoming Democratic governor’s power.
The tactics are not only targeted at Democratic statewide officials. They are also designed to undermine democracy itself. In Wisconsin, Republicans passed a bill to make it harder for citizens to get to the polls by reducing early voting — a move that was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge two years ago.
In Michigan, they’re working to protect their gerrymandered majority by kneecapping an independent redistricting commission passed by popular referendum just last month. And in North Carolina, the lame-duck Republican legislative supermajority, which suffered big electoral losses, is working to rewrite state election law to effectively put Republicans in charge of elections in every county, even while ignoring an egregious vote-stealing scandal in a US House race.
The cumulative result is that the separation of powers is being destroyed by the separation of parties. It is nothing less than a brewing constitutional crisis. So what can we do about it?
The ideal solution would be for everyone, regardless of party, to act like adults and acknowledge that elections have consequences. The best reaction to losing the vote is to figure out how to get more votes, not to disrespect the will of voters by undermining the constitutional authority of the victors. In light of what we’ve seen in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Michigan, however, this now seems sadly naive.
A second option would be to protect the credibility of elections. This means competent, nonpartisan election administrators, and laws that expand access for eligible voters so the electorate better reflects the population. The problem is that Republicans have enough power to block these reforms in most states — and that’s exactly what they’ve done.
That leaves us with a third option: Devote serious resources and attention to state legislative elections and policy work. (Full disclosure: That’s exactly what Future Now, the effort I cofounded, is designed to do.)
The Democrats’ predominant focus on federal and major statewide offices at the expense of state legislatures has created a vacuum, one that has allowed special interests and right-wing billionaires to swoop in and buy up legislatures on the cheap. Even when the party does focus on state legislatures, it is through the narrow lens of drawing congressional maps.
The fact is, state legislatures do most of the governing that affects our daily lives, yet only get a fraction of the attention paid to Congress. Particularly at a time when the federal government is gridlocked, the state level is where we can get far more done and deliver the kind of change that improves people's lives.
Republicans and the billionaires who bankroll them understand this, which is why they’ve been focusing on statehouses for decades. This week in Michigan and Wisconsin shows just how far Democrats have to go to catch up.