Donald P. Moynihan is the McCourt chair at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. He served as a professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison from 2005 to 2018.
Wisconsin Republicans endured a tough election last month, losing all major statewide offices. In response, the lame-duck legislators are calling a so-called extraordinary session. Their agenda? To make it harder for citizens to vote and to strip away powers from newly elected Democratic officials. Michigan Republicans have similar plans, and both are following in the footsteps of their North Carolina peers.
This is part of a distinctly partisan and anti-democratic trend in state politics: When Republicans lose, they turn away from democratic processes and the will of the people. The impact of the proposed changes are on a par with Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s signature Act 10, which effectively destroyed public-sector unions and incited bitter polarization in the state .
The new power grab brazenly subverts the outcome of the election. For example, Walker and his opponent, Tony Evers (D), repeatedly clashed on Walker’s decision to join a lawsuit attacking Obamacare, prompting Evers to promise that he would withdraw from the lawsuit if elected. Given the clear contrast between the candidates, the now-governor-elect has a mandate to do so, but the proposed legislation would remove Evers’s power to act on that mandate.
Evers would also lose power historically reserved by Wisconsin governors to seek waivers from federal programs to innovate. It’s how then-Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) developed welfare reform and how Walker imposed work requirements on Medicaid recipients. No longer. If Republicans get their way, the legislature would take charge of federal waivers. In the short run, this would mean that Evers could not withdraw from Walker’s new Medicaid work requirements . Similar work requirements have led thousands to lose their health insurance in Arkansas.
And it’s not just the governor. Republicans also want to eliminate much of the new attorney general’s powers. Under the proposed changes, the legislature would have final say on legal cases involving the state and could choose their own private lawyers instead of the attorney general when state laws are challenged in court. This raises the question: Why even have the position of attorney general if they are allowed to practice law only when a Republican holds the position?
One would think that after such a disappointing election, Wisconsin Republicans would want to find a way to reconnect with voters. But in fact, they’re proposing new restrictions on early voting — even though a similar effort in the state was deemed unconstitutional in 2016 because of its clear partisan intent. This comes after Republicans passed a strict voter-ID bill in 2011; passed a bill in 2015 disbanding a nonpartisan elections board after it looked into Walker’s campaign-finance practices; and created one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, in which 46 percent of the vote won Republicans 63 percent of the state Assembly this year.
Republicans also want to rejig the electoral calendar to improve the reelection prospects of a state Supreme Court justice, who as a private lawyer defended those gerrymandering practices. The law currently specifies that the election should fall in April 2020, which coincides with the state’s presidential primary, so Republicans propose moving the primary election up to March. Such a change could cost the state an estimated $7 million (despite Walker’s argument this year against holding special elections because they cost too much ). The vast majority of Wisconsin’s county election clerks oppose the change, which would require them to run three separate elections in three months.
Wisconsin Republicans did not campaign on any of the above policies, and they are making little effort to defend them. Clearly, they no longer trust the voters who select them, so they’ve decided to select the voters themselves. They don’t like the governor or attorney general that Wisconsinites picked, so they are stripping them of their powers. And they disagree with policies that people supported, so they are putting unprecedented constraints on the new governor to keep him from implementing them.
Democracies ultimately depend on having stable rules and norms that support those rules — even when things don’t go your way. We agree to this basic logic as citizens; it’s central to our social contract with the state. We should expect the same of our elected officials. Politicians who change the rules of the game because they don’t like the outcomes are a danger to democracy.