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Michael W. Wagner: It’s up to the people to save democracy in Wisconsin

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The peaceful transfer of power in republican democracies requires that lawmakers do not change the job descriptions, between Election Day and Inauguration Day, of the elected offices their party lost.

Wisconsin Republican legislators are ignoring the will of the state’s voters with a series of democracy-subverting proposals released on Friday afternoon ahead of possible votes Tuesday.

Proposals include the stripping of power from Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, unnecessarily spending millions of dollars to change the 2020 primary election date and the limiting of early voting. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, provided no substantive reasons for these changes, even saying that moving the primary election date would give his party a “better chance” to win a state Supreme Court seat.

If anyone is unsatisfied with the results of an election, the remedy is not to change the rules, it is to try and win the next election. Wisconsin Republicans are telling us we are not worthy of arguments, evidence, reason and due process for them to win on Election Day. Rather, we are merely vessels to elect them in the manner of their choosing — via severely gerrymandered districts and proposed rules to protect them from the political consequences of losing two important statewide offices.

Think about how ridiculous it would be if, after the Green Bay Packers recovered a Chicago Bears’ fumble, the Bears immediately petitioned the NFL to outlaw the forward pass when Aaron Rodgers was on the field because Rodgers’ passing gave the Pack a “better chance” to win.

Unfortunately, this kind of behavior is just what Wisconsin Republicans are proposing. They are doing it on the heels of a variety of behaviors they’ve endorsed that seek to pick their voters, govern out of public view, and win at all costs.

While partisan gerrymandering is a political action undertaken by both parties when they are in charge, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism revealed our state lawmakers’ penchant for last-minute secrecy and speeding up the legislative process to prevent you from commenting on proposed changes to state law. This has occurred since Republicans enjoyed control of the statehouse.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, engages in these actions while paying lip service to the idea that he hopes for compromise with Gov.-elect Evers, a Democrat.

I serve with Speaker Vos at the Tommy G. Thompson Center for Public Leadership at UW-Madison. I have found Vos to be a smart, serious and talented man. I really thought he was someone committed to exploring ways to solve key problems the state faces. It is beyond disappointing to see the work we do together treated like this. Rather than peacefully transferring power, as Gov. Thompson did to Gov. McCallum, Gov. McCallum did to Gov. Doyle and Gov. Doyle did to Gov. Walker, the state Assembly speaker is asking Gov. Walker to undercut our next set of duly elected officials’ ability to govern.

This behavior will not encourage the bipartisanship Vos claims to be seeking from Evers. It will persuade Democrats that the only way to get anything done is to declare war on Republicans. If you think the last decade has been contentious, you might not have seen anything yet.

Research I have been conducting with colleagues at UW-Madison suggests people are tired of the contentious politics that have dominated the state over the past decade and the way our fractured political system is affecting our lives. Wisconsin voters want Democrats and Republicans to respect each other and work together. Few expect liberals and conservatives to ignore differences in their core values and vote together all the time, but voters appropriately want to know that the rules that applied to Gov. Scott Walker and Attorney General Brad Schimel will be the ones that apply to Evers and Kaul.

Ironically, research from scholars at the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington recently showed that independent voters get motivated to show up to the polls when they learn that lawmakers are subverting democracy and the rule of law. In other words, Wisconsin Republicans’ plans to strip their political adversaries of their power is likely to have the long-term consequence of causing voters to remove those same Republicans from office.

People are rightly sick of this polarizing nonsense, and they want it to stop. The people can either wait until Election Day 2020 to send anti-democratic legislators home or choose to call their lawmakers — and call them today. Let them know Wisconsinites strongly disapprove of those who choose to change the rules of governing when their side loses. Democracy cannot survive if the rules do not apply to everyone.

Wagner is a professor at UW-Madison..

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