How Wisconsin became ground zero for the ‘Big Lie’

January 6, 2022 6:30 am
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol. Congress held a joint session to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Wisconsin is at the center of the attack on American democracy that reached a frightening crescendo a year ago with the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

Apart from Derrick Van Orden, the Republican candidate for the Congressional seat soon to vacated by Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse), there were not many cheeseheads actually present for the battering down of the Capitol doors in Washington, D.C., the lethal assaults on Capitol police officers or the hooliganism on the Senate floor on Jan. 6.  But, as Jeffrey Mandell explains in the Examiner today, 10 Wisconsin Republicans’ decision to forward fraudulent electoral votes for Donald Trump to Congress helped lay the groundwork for undermining the election and the basic processes of our democracy.

A year later, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman are still pursuing their partisan investigation of the 2020 presidential election — the most secure election in history, whose results have never been in doubt, according to former President Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, the National Association of State Election Directors, the National Association of Secretaries of State and other experts. Worse, they are deploying tactics straight out of the McCarthy era, another shameful chapter in American history that began in Wisconsin.  

Our deeply divided state, birthplace of the progressive movement, good government idealism, and an enlightened vision of a healthy, vibrant democracy, has also had its dark moments. We are living through one of them.

So far, the spurious accusations against elections officials and threats of jail time for mayors who refused Gableman’s demand that they testify before him in secret have not cost  people  their jobs or intimidated them into silence, as happened during the Red Scare. But Gableman, whose bloviating, bullying style is reminiscent of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, isn’t finished yet. And neither is his boss, Robin Vos, who, as Henry Redman reports, has resisted court orders that he turn over information about his baseless investigation even as he extends the whole taxpayer-financed circus into a new year.

Wisconsin has earned the dubious distinction of being recognized as the point of origin for the coordinated, national attack on democracy by voting rights advocates. 

David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR), which works with election experts around the country, Republicans and Democrats alike, to build voter confidence and improve election administration, calls Wisconsin “ground zero” for the undermining of election integrity. 

Among the alarming developments that have focused serious national attention on Wisconsin, Becker says, is the fact that “the Speaker of the Assembly has suggested that members of the Wisconsin Election Commission should be arrested; there has been ongoing rhetoric coming from Racine County about charging public servants who have given of themselves to serve their fellow citizens with crimes for fulfilling their duty.” 

“The threats are very real to both the overall well-being of election professionals in the state of Wisconsin and elsewhere and also their individual liberty,” adds Becker. “They’re being threatened with crimes and jail time for doing their jobs. And that’s about as one of the most un-American things I can imagine.”

Becker, who served as a senior attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice Voting Section in both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations before founding CEIR, spoke Tuesday during a press call on the legacy of the Jan. 6 insurrection. The next day, the Democratic Attorneys General Association held its own call on the threats to democracy and voting. On that call, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said, “We need to end this fake Gableman investigation that is full of bogus accusations and is clearly biased and was tainted from the beginning.” 

Kaul encouraged Wisconsinites to contact their elected representatives “not only to demand that they end that investigation, but that they protect the rights of voters — that we’re working to expand access to voting, not taking power away from voters or restricting access.”

Kaul and other attorneys general clearly link bogus election investigations to the larger Republican effort to disenfranchise voters by making it more difficult to vote, and vowed to fight both of these efforts.

It’s depressing that Wisconsin, a state that has had particularly clean and well-run elections, is now the incubator for the GOP’s disreputable attack on democracy. 

Our state has had paper ballots and has performed thorough election audits for many years. “The elections officials there from both parties do a remarkable job under incredibly difficult circumstances,” Becker says. 

As punishment for running a mandatory recall election against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, in 2015 the Republican-dominated Legislature did away with the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which used to run our elections, and replaced it with the Wisconsin Elections Commission, with equal numbers of partisan appointees who are doomed to deadlock over minor issues and fight their way through dreary, endless meetings. The one thing that is finally uniting the commissioners is their revulsion toward the intensely partisan attacks by state Republicans on the commission’s work, including threats of criminal charges by the Racine County Sheriff.  

As Becker points out, the WEC “has now run two presidential elections with near identical margins of victory very, very well and verified them both times and the Wisconsin Legislature and others are now attacking the very creation of the Wisconsin Legislature, which did its job admirably.” 

As a narrowly divided swing state, Wisconsin produced narrow margins of victory for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 that were virtually identical at just over 20,000 votes. And while Donald Trump insisted that he won in 2020, he only asked for recounts in a couple of Democratic counties where no one thought he’d won.

“He chose not to request a full statewide recount in Wisconsin though it was his legal right, which tells you a lot about what he believes the outcome of Wisconsin was,” Becker says.  

None of that has slowed down the obnoxious drumbeat from Republicans casting doubt on the results of the 2020 election and trying to leverage that doubt to impose new restrictions on voting that they think will make it easier for them to win. 

The Republican push for more election “security” in Wisconsin has things exactly backwards. What makes elections more secure are the very things the GOP wants to get rid of — more mail-in ballots and early voting leave a paper trail that makes ballots easy to check. 

Perhaps a silver lining in Republicans’ assault on elections and democracy is that they might be shooting themselves in the foot. Measures like doing away with ballot drop boxes and making voters jump through more hoops won’t necessarily improve Republicans’ chances of winning. Partisan preference and voter behavior are too complicated to control with those simple barriers, Becker says. He points to the pandemic election, where voters turned out and stood in long lines at a reduced number of polling places (and, in Wisconsin, elected the Democratic-supported candidate for state Supreme Court by a big margin, overcoming massive barriers to voting).

The message that elections are rigged and voting machines can’t be trusted could also have a discouraging effect on the people most inclined to believe it — the GOP base.  

Whatever the partisan effects, the war on voting is bad for democracy and civil society.

“We have state legislatures right now that are trying to roll back voting rights, that are trying to give themselves power to overturn elections,” Kaul said during the attorney generals’ press conference. “That’s why it’s so critical that the federal government acts to pass the Freedom to Vote Act — we need to make sure that the will of the voters is protected.”

“We have a fundamental question before us,” Kaul added. “And that question is, when we look back generations from now, will the insurrection be viewed as a turning point, a time when we reaffirmed our commitment to democracy, or will it be viewed as a precursor to further attacks on our democracy?”

The answer will be up to all of us, especially here in Wisconsin.

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Ruth Conniff
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 the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She 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 lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.