Wisconsin is certain to be one of the most important states in the 2020 presidential election.
Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, Wisconsin was a purple state. More often than not, voters in minority-majority Milwaukee, deep blue Madison, and progressive pockets throughout the state gave Democrats an edge over Republicans who clustered in small towns, rural areas, and white-flight suburbs.
As of January, 2008, Democrats had won Wisconsin in six straight presidential elections. Democrats held the governor’s mansion, the state Senate, a majority on the state Supreme Court, both federal Senate seats, and five of eight House seats.
The first major crack in the purple wall came on April 1, 2008. Armed with special interest money and deceptive, race-baiting ads accusing the African-American Democratic incumbent of "legislating from the bench" and helping a child molester go free, white Republican Michael Gableman narrowly won a 10-year term to the state Supreme Court. The support of 51% of the 35% of eligible voters who showed up—less than one in five eligible voters statewide—gave Republicans a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court.
At the time, the significance of this race wasn’t fully appreciated. In November of that year, when Barack Obama won Wisconsin by 14 points, turnout was 71%, twice as high and far more indicative of the will of the people across the state. It was easy to see the Supreme Court election as an anomaly.
2010 proved that it was actually a sign of things to come.
In reaction to the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008 and passage of the Affordable Care Act, which gave the GOP conniption fits, Republicans had a wave of their own in Wisconsin. It was a small wave in terms of voter participation (turnout was just 49.7%), and disproportionately white, but the power accorded was complete and total. The support of one in four eligible voters made Republican Scott Walker governor, flipped the state Senate to the GOP, and helped Republicans gain control of all three branches of state government.
Acting as if they had a mandate, Republicans turned Wisconsin into Wississippi with a years-long, scorched-earth assault on 20th Century progress, killing unions and morale among state employees, slashing social services and public education while showering business interests and the wealthy with tax cuts, limiting a woman’s right to choose, gutting environmental protections.
Republicans also implemented some of the most restrictive voter ID measures in the country, laws which disenfranchise African-Americans at twice the rate of whites, after which they made it harder to obtain IDs by closing DMV offices in Democratic districts—even as they increased hours at DMV offices in Republican districts.
In addition to attacks on working Wisconsinites, the poor, the disabled, women, people of color, and the public interest was a move that would give the GOP a voter-resistant lock on the state legislature for years, if not decades, to come: Wisconsin Republicans’ redrawing of the election maps. Through gerrymandering, Republicans were able to guarantee themselves control of the state legislature unless Democrats drew over 60% of the vote, a mathematical impossibility in a state that is 86% white and heavily rural. As Walker signed bills, Republicans on the state Supreme Court legislated from the bench, serving as a rubber stamp for GOP-passed items which were challenged in court.
On the strength of two extremely narrow election wins, including one in which the Republican elections clerk in the most right-wing county in the state magically discovered 14,000 ballots the day after a Republican judge (and her former boss) had appeared to lose by 200 votes, Wisconsin Republicans have been able to hold the state Supreme Court majority and keep the gerrymander in place.
The distorting effect of the gerrymander on the democratic process was demonstrated most clearly in 2018. In an election with record midterm turnout, Democrats won the federal Senate race by eleven points and swept statewide offices (governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer), but gained just one seat in the state Assembly and actually lost a state Senate seat. Democrats won almost 200,000 more votes in House races, yet Republicans kept five of eight seats.
After Scott Walker’s loss to Democratic candidate Tony Evers, Republican legislators held an unprecedented extraordinary session to limit Evers’ powers. They also tried to suppress the Democratic vote by restricting early voting, a move which was later blocked by a federal court.
Republicans’ desire to maintain their state Supreme Court majority was behind the GOP’s recent maneuvers to make the state hold a primary in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several days before the scheduled election, Governor Evers proposed mailing ballots to all voters so they wouldn’t have to vote in person, but Republicans balked. Lacking any other options due to Republican intransigence, Evers signed an executive order postponing the primary the day before the election.16 other states and territories had done the same thing, but Wisconsin Republicans put partisan considerations over public safety by successfully appealing Evers' order to the state Supreme Court. They knew the pandemic would inordinately impact turnout in Madison and Milwaukee, since residents in Wisconsin’s two biggest cities would face a greater risk of infection and far longer lines at polling places due to higher population density. Milwaukee, which typically has 180 polling stations, had only five polling stations, one for every 120,000 people.
Republicans also sued to block a court-approved measure giving voters an additional week to turn in absentee ballots; the extension had been granted because thousands of voters throughout the state had not received requested absentee ballots. Republicans on the federal Supreme Court sided with Wisconsin’s GOP on election eve, forcing anyone who didn’t have an absentee ballot to vote at the last minute, in person, safety be damned.
Despite these tactics, which put the health of the 450,000 people who voted in person in jeopardy and infected voters who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten COVID-19, Republicans lost the state Supreme Court race by double digits.
It was a moral victory for Democrats, but strategically hollow, as Republicans will have a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court once the new Democratic justice is seated and are almost certain to pad the GOP’s structural advantage further in the near future.
Two months ago, an appeals court unanimously rejected a circuit court ruling by a Republican judge to kick over 200,000 Wisconsin voters off of the voter rolls. The lower court judge claimed to be protecting election integrity, but his true motivation was to suppress Democratic turnout, as zip codes with high concentrations of students and voters of color—especially prevalent in the Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee—had twice as many names on the list as average zip codes. According to a study done by the Guardian, 12% of voters in black-majority districts would be removed from the voting rolls were the purge to go through.
Republican lawyers have appealed the case to Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court. Based on past history, we can reliably guess how the Republican majority will vote.
Come the presidential election this November, Republicans will have thrown up multiple barriers for Democratic voters, from Jim Crow-like voter ID laws to a massive voter purge of Madison and Milwaukee to blocking the vote-by-mail option favored by public health advocates, which will (again) force hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who don’t vote absentee to risk their health, and the health of their loved ones, if they want to exercise their franchise.
With all of these sinister and undemocratic forces at his back, as well as Russian meddling, Donald Trump has a better-than-even chance of winning the swingiest of swing states this fall—regardless of the true intentions of Wisconsin voters. Until or unless Democrats win the next state Supreme Court race in 2023, Wisconsin Republicans will continue to make a mockery of democracy.