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The National Commission for Voter Justice has sought from its inception last year to focus not just on assaults on voting rights but also on the promise of reforms — such as automatic voter registration and voting by mail — that might move every state toward high-turnout elections. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Gov. Scott Walker and his cronies have worked hard to tip the balance against competitive elections in Wisconsin — with extreme gerrymandering, restrictive voter ID requirements, schemes to limit early voting, and an assault on the independence and integrity of the former Government Accountability Board.

Walker has emerged as a national leader in the corporate-sponsored push to upend practices and procedures that are designed to make voting easy. This has put the governor and many of his closest allies — including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville — at odds with Wisconsin’s historic commitment to high-turnout elections.

Walker’s approach represents a break with the values of not just his Democratic critics but the Republicans who still believe they are members of “the party of Lincoln.”

It is important to recognize this detail of history as the National Commission for Voter Justice holds its regional hearing in Milwaukee. This commission, on which I am proud to serve as a national co-chair, will take testimony from Wisconsinites when it gathers Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Milwaukee Bar Association office.

While debates over voter suppression have in recent years tended to divide along partisan lines, the National Commission for Voter Justice has sought from its inception last year to get beyond the petty partisanship that so frequently interrupts the progress of an American experiment that must bend always toward democracy. The commission uses the term “voter justice” because it is not just focused on assaults on voting rights but also on the promise of reforms — such as automatic voter registration and voting by mail — that might move every state toward high-turnout elections.

Democrats such as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown get credit these days for having taken the lead on voter empowerment, as do members of the Green and Libertarian parties. Republicans like Walker are justly criticized for seeking to undermine turnout and enthusiasm.

But there have always been — and there still are — Republicans who reject schemes to game the system. Former state Senate Majority Leader Dale Schultz broke with the Republican caucus in 2014 on voting rights issues, telling Wisconsin radio hosts Mike Crute and Dominic Salvia: “I am not willing to defend them anymore. I’m just not and I’m embarrassed by this.”

“It’s just sad when a political party has so lost faith in its ideas that it’s pouring all of its energy into election mechanics,” explained Schultz, who did not seek re-election that year. “We should be pitching as political parties our ideas for improving things in the future rather than mucking around in the mechanics and making it more confrontational at the voting sites and trying to suppress the vote.”

Schultz has continued to speak out on voting rights issues and he is not alone among Wisconsin Republicans. Walker’s GOP primary challenger this year, Sun Prairie businessman Robert Meyer, said: “We're all stewards of the Great American Experiment and we need to do everything we can to make our government as representative and participative as it can possibly be.”

The official biography of one of Wisconsin’s senior Republicans, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, proudly declares: “Throughout his tenure in Congress, Jim has fought to protect the gains made during the civil rights movement. As Judiciary Committee chairman, he introduced the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006. After approximately 20 hearings, the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. However, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of this law. After, Jim introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, a bipartisan, bicameral modernization of the original 1965 law that ensures Americans’ most sacred right is protected.”

Sensenbrenner continues to advocate for the revitalization of the Voting Rights Act — along with Congressional Black Caucus members such as Milwaukee Congresswoman Gwen Moore and Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

Sensenbrenner does not have many Republican co-sponsors for his legislation. But he is undaunted. “Ensuring that every eligible voter can cast a ballot without fear, deterrence and prejudice is a basic American right,” he explained several years ago. “I would rather lose my job than suppress votes to keep it.”

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Those are the words of an old-school Wisconsin Republican, a member of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Robert M. La Follette and Dwight Eisenhower and the Republican platform writers (such as Wisconsin Congressman Mel Laird) of 50 years ago, who declared: “We must attack the root causes of poverty and eradicate racism, hatred and violence. We must give all citizens the opportunity to influence and shape the events of our time.” To that end, the Republican Party’s 1968 platform announced: “The strengthening of citizen influence on government requires a number of improvements in political areas. For instance, we propose to reform the Electoral College system, establish a nationwide, uniform voting period for presidential elections, and recommend that the states remove unreasonable requirements, residence and otherwise, for voting in presidential elections.”

The Republicans who made those commitments stood on the right side of history. It is tragic that politicians like Scott Walker and Paul Ryan have pulled the party away from its moorings. But their abuses cannot be allowed to define the future of the Republican Party or the United States.

This country must unite, across lines of partisanship and ideology, in support of voting rights, voter justice and the high-turnout elections that are the essential underpinning of government of, by and for the people.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times