The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wisconsin is the proving ground for Republican efforts to hold power

It has been for a while.

A supporter of President Donald Trump attends an election night watch party at the Ingleside Hotel on Nov. 3, 2020, in Pewaukee, Wis. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Joe Biden won Wisconsin last November by a narrow margin, a bit under 21,000 votes. It was not the first close result in the state, of course; in 2016, Donald Trump won it by a bit fewer than 23,000 votes. But because last year’s result was close — and because of a deep-seated sense among many Wisconsin Republicans that they deserve to hold power in the state — Wisconsin has emerged as a leading indicator of how the party might try to unwind elections it loses.

We should note at the outset that there is no evidence that the results of the 2020 election were in any way marred by significant electoral fraud. Wisconsin has nonetheless been a focus of allegations of fraud, in part because Milwaukee County, the state’s most populous and the source of a large part of Biden’s vote total, reported its count all at once, hours after polls closed. This was presented as evidence that Biden had somehow cheated, that Democrats had ginned up enough votes for him to win, but this was obviously not the case. Biden won, fairly but narrowly.

As has been the case elsewhere, though, this speculation about fraud has been used as a rationale for making changes to Wisconsin’s election laws. In a lengthy report, the New York Times on Friday drew the line from false claims of fraud — claims even debunked by state legislators — to efforts to allow the state legislature to take control of federal elections.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) made the suggestion last week because, he told the Times, “I probably don’t expect [Democrats] to follow the rules. And other people don’t either, and that’s the problem.”

It’s important to note that not only did Democrats not cheat in Wisconsin in 2020, but also that Johnson has in the past acknowledged that they did not. Speaking to an undercover reporter a few months ago, Johnson said that “there’s nothing obviously skewed about the results,” pointing out that Trump got fewer votes than assembly candidates in the state. And yet here he is, nearly three months later, insisting that things are so suspect that the state has no choice but to turn election administration over to the Republican-controlled legislature.

This is more telling than it seems. There are few legislatures in the country that are as lopsided in their distribution of power as Wisconsin’s. In 2016, for example, Republicans won about 161,000 more votes than Democrats in assembly races statewide, giving them 64 of the state’s 99 seats — even though that margin represented only about 52 percent of the votes cast. In 2018, Democrats did far better, winning 53 percent of assembly votes cast statewide and more than 200,000 more votes on net. The result? Republicans won 63 of the state’s 99 assembly seats.

Since 2012, the split in the two-party vote margin in assembly races has moved around a lot. Control of the assembly hasn’t.

In other words, Johnson not only wants to use false claims of fraud as a predicate for turning elections over to the state legislature — where election results could be overturned — but he also wants to turn them over to a legislature that is already unbalanced to his party’s benefit.

When Gov. Tony Evers (D) won election in 2018, Republicans quickly moved to strip power from his position. The rationale offered by the state assembly speaker, Robin Vos (R), was explicit: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.” It’s true that Evers would enact policies to which many Republicans objected, of course, but that’s how elections work. Losing an election is not a justifiable reason to strip power from the position that you lost.

Wisconsin is unusually polarized along one of the central dividing lines in American politics at the moment: urban vs. rural, which overlaps with White vs. non-White. You can see the division in the results from the 2020 election by county. Most counties voted for Trump over Biden, but more-populous counties — and, in particular, Milwaukee — preferred Biden. As was the case elsewhere, the two-party vote correlated to the density of the White population.

So a bunch of mostly White rural counties that preferred Trump saw the state go to Biden thanks to voters in the big city. Those rural counties are disproportionately represented in the state legislature. And so their residents get this sense that elections are being unfairly skewed by citizens who don’t look like them from parts of the state that don’t look like theirs.

“If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” Robin Vos said in 2018, which is true — but also not how our democracy works.

It’s also misleading on its own. It is true that most Wisconsin residents live in counties that Trump won in 2020, about 63 percent of the population.

But that’s misleading, too. More than half of the votes that Biden received in Wisconsin came from counties that he lost. (Only about a quarter of Trump’s votes came from counties that Biden won.) There are a lot of Biden voters in Trump country — a reality obscured by the overweighting of Republican power in Republican-voting areas.

What has happened in Wisconsin since 2018 is that the Republican hold on power, rooted in the unbalanced allocation of power to rural areas, has been challenged. So there’s an effort to change the rules to allow power to be allocated even less fairly, an effort rooted in an incorrect and often insincere claim that (nonexistent) dubious activity necessitates it.

“Democracy cannot flourish if both sides don’t believe in the end [that] both sides had a fair shot,” Vos said earlier this year. Unless, of course, the side that doesn’t think it has a fair shot is the side that is kept from holding power in the assembly that Vos leads. Then it’s just tough crackers.

All of this is important: not because Wisconsin is an outlier, but because it is increasingly not. This effort to skew power to Republicans, including in the management of federal elections, has been a response also offered in other states where the right sees its power threatened. This is a future that Republicans are happy to embrace, one in which they might not get more votes but they get more power.

It works in presidential races (see: 2000 and 2016) and in the Senate (see: usually). So why not everywhere else?