Savoring a historic election 

Kamala Harris on health care with young supporter
Kamala Harris at the Save Our Care Rally at the U.S. Capitol poses with a supporter on June 28, 2017. Democratic Party Leaders and others spoke to defend the Affordable Care Act. (Photo by Mobilus In Mobili CC BY-SA 2.0

We were out in the backyard with our teenaged girls on Saturday night when we tuned in to watch Joe Biden’s victory speech. Kamala Harris strode on stage in suffragette white to the strains of “Work That”  — Mary J. Blige singing about being a beautiful queen. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I had tears in my eyes.

It’s been a long four years of the misogynist, white supremacist Trump administration — an administration that began with chants of  “lock her up” and moved on to embracing violent white nationalists, supporting police officers who kill Black people with impunity and torturing immigrant children torn from their parents at the border. 

Finally, we’ve made it to the other side — to a vision of America that includes powerful women and people of color, that looks to the future instead of wallowing in the wounded sense of entitlement of those who long for the imaginary “greatness” of the past, when racial and gender hierarchies were strictly enforced.

Acknowledging “the generations of women, Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women — who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment tonight,” Harris delivered her acceptance speech as the first woman and first woman of color elected vice president of the United States. 

It’s worth savoring the moment.

The Biden campaign did not go long on inspiration. Partly it was the fault of the pandemic, which prevented rock-concert style stadium rallies (except for Trump, who revelled in these superspreader events). Partly it was the candidate at the top of the ticket, the oldest man ever elected president of the United States, who, with his halting style, sprinkled with by-the-ways and here’s-the-deals, was no Barack Obama. Biden’s denunciation of progressives and progressivism was, as I’ve noted before, downright discouraging.

Harris is no progressive icon either — despite Trump’s efforts to portray her as a dangerous socialist. She’s a career prosecutor and a center-left Democrat. But as the race was finally called, Harris brought back the goosebumps and the sense that this election is truly historic. The symbolism is important, especially after the rightwing backlash of the Trump era. And so is the sensibility of a vice president who talks about the lessons in social justice she learned from her immigrant parents, who embraces her Black and Indian-American identity, and who made the United States’ scandalously high rate of Black maternal mortality a central issue in her presidential primary campaign.

While Biden and Harris planned their transition over the weekend, Trump remained in his fantasy land, refusing to concede and doubling down on his phony claims of voter fraud. His campaign is still promising to pursue a plethora of nuisance lawsuits that won’t change the outcome in states around the country. They still claim they will file for a recount here in Wisconsin, where Trump’s own campaign chairman, former Gov. Scott Walker, has said that Biden’s 20,000 vote margin is too steep for Trump to overcome.

Republicans here and elsewhere are trying to thread the needle — avoiding contradicting the president, while edging closer to accepting the reality that he has lost and it’s time to move on.

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Watch how they react as Trump clings to the bedpost. It’s not just the sore loser in the White House, but also his dangerously retrograde politics that Republicans should renounce. 

It was not a good sign when, late on Friday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called on the Assembly committee on campaigns and elections to investigate Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud here in Wisconsin. 

“With concerns surfacing about mail-in ballot dumps and voter fraud, Wisconsin citizens deserve to know their vote counted,” Vos said in a statement.

Taking a particular swipe at Milwaukee, where most of Wisconsin’s African American voters live, Vos said, “I hope the committee investigates the inefficiency of Milwaukee’s central counting of absentee ballots, as well as the removal of voters from the rolls who no longer live here.”

These are spurious accusations for which Vos presented no evidence. The Milwaukee central count finished its tally by early Wednesday morning, after conducting its business in full view of the public via live feed. 

“We finished right when I predicted that we’d finish, and did it with accuracy and transparency,” Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee elections commission told reporters before stepping into a police SUV at 3 a.m. on Wednesday, to deliver the absentee ballot tally to the county courthouse.

Democrats on the campaigns and elections committee immediately rebuked Vos for his false alarm about fraud: “This is a ridiculous attempt to cast doubt on the results of the November 2020 Presidential Election in Wisconsin, and we reject it outright,” committee members Reps. JoCasta Zamarripa (Milwaukee), Lisa Subeck (Madison) and Mark Spreitzer (Beloit), said in a statement issued Friday evening. They called Vos’ request for an investigation “irresponsible, unnecessary, and unfounded.”

“While members of President Trump’s campaign actively engage in attempts to undermine state elections elsewhere, the Speaker is joining his party’s desperate attempts to deny the will of the people by manufacturing controversy here in Wisconsin,” the committee members added.

Indeed, as Meagan Wolfe, the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s administrator, told reporters last week, the process for counting ballots in Wisconsin is completely transparent, ran quite smoothly, and without any evidence of voter fraud. A recount, should the Trump campaign decide to go to the time and expense of pursuing it (his campaign will have to pay if the gap is larger than .25%) will almost certainly have no effect on the outcome. The 2016 recount requested by Jill Stein ultimately changed the final vote count by about one 100th of a percent.

The racially coded language Vos chose to use about illegitimate votes in Milwaukee is an old, ugly habit for state Republicans, made even more toxic in the era of Donald Trump.

The good news is that democracy worked in Wisconsin. A large team of lawyers, clergy and citizen volunteers stood ready to help if there were instances of voter intimidation at the polls or an effort to interfere with the ballot count. Instead, everything went off without a hitch. 

After the terrible violence we witnessed in Kenosha, where a self-styled militia member has been charged with shooting peaceful protesters, it was a relief to see that “Trump’s army” did not show up at the polls.

“We’re very pleased,” said Heather Ullsvik, Wisconsin’s first statewide facilitator of election-protection legal efforts. “You would much prefer to create a process to deal with things and then not have to use it.”

Even Vos himself, mindful of Wisconsin’s decentralized network of local clerks, many of them in Republican areas, who worked hard and efficiently to count the vote, felt compelled to say, in the same statement in which he demanded an election investigation, “Wisconsin’s election system is one of the best in the country. We have well-trained staff that finished counting the ballots well before most other states.”

So Trump has not succeeded in destroying the institutions of democracy in Wisconsin or in the United States. He has not succeeded in starting a civil war here or elsewhere around the country. And he will not succeed in remaining in office, despite his pathological inability to admit that he has lost. 

“We rejoice that Election Day was conducted with integrity, with few disturbances, and with a record-breaking turnout of voters,” the Wisconsin Interfaith Voter Engagement Campaign said in a statement. Clergy who were involved in the campaign had undergone training to de-escalate any conflicts at the polls. “We pray for continuing calm across our state and nation and look forward to a peaceful transition of power, as has been the case throughout our nation’s 244-year history,” the campaign pointedly added.

The forces that gave rise to Trumpism are still with us. But so are the forces that propelled Kamala Harris’ historic first.

If we are going to move forward and out of this dark era, those forces — pro-democracy groups, civil rights groups, women’s rights groups and ordinary citizens determined to have a say in their democracy — are going to have to keep their feet on the gas.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.