Wisconsin’s starring role in the Jan. 6 insurrection 

By: - June 9, 2022 6:30 am
A Stop The Steal is posted inside of the Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, breaking windows in the deadly insurrection attempt aimed at stopping Congress from certifying Joe Biden's win in the November election. Photo by Jon Cherry | Getty Images

A Stop The Steal is posted inside of the Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, breaking windows in the deadly insurrection attempt aimed at stopping Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s win in the November election. (Jon Cherry | Getty Images)

Wisconsin is “Ground Zero” in the fight to defend democracy, according to Brad Woodhouse, co-chair of the Defend Democracy Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington, DC, whose mission statement declares that its “one objective” is “that American voters determine the outcome of elections.”  

“Wisconsin is one of the most important, fought-after, battleground states. There’ll be a close election again in 2024. And if we don’t hold these people accountable for what they did on Jan. 6, and that election is close, they’ll try to steal it the next time,” Woodhouse said on Wednesday during a virtual press briefing ahead Thursday’s first public hearing by the House Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. During the press briefing, hosted by the Defend Democracy Project, a panel of state and national experts discussed what Wisconsinites can expect to learn from the hearings, which will be carried live on network and cable television starting at 7 p.m. CST.

“If Trump, his allies — not just the people that attacked the Capitol, not just the ones wearing the Viking helmets — if the politicians all the way up to former presidents and members of Congress are not held accountable, this will happen again,” Woodhouse warned.

“The violent insurrection led by white supremacists and Trump supporters was the closest we’ve been to the overthrow of the U.S. government since the Civil War,” said Donald Sherman, general counsel of Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics, another pro-democracy nonprofit based in Washington, DC.

Donald Sherman of Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics | Screenshot via Zoom
Donald Sherman of Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics | Screenshot via Zoom

Sherman tied together efforts to undermine election results and the threat posed by the rise of political violence in America, including to the foiled plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer and the threats of violence against Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused to go along with efforts to falsely assign Georgia’s electoral votes to Donald Trump.

“Unless there is accountability for the Jan. 6 insurrection, these threats could manifest in Wisconsin and anywhere else in the United States,” Sherman said. “And we see this happening already. As there are people actually running for positions of power in government on the platform of overturning elections and suppressing legal votes.”

Wisconsin is one of the states where, despite the fact that President Joe Biden won the state’s electoral college votes, a slate of Republican fake electors sent false electoral votes for Trump to Washington.

Mel Barnes of the progressive legal outfit Law Forward talked about the firm’s focus, since it launched in 2020, on “holding these extreme right-wing actors accountable for their attempts to undermine our democracy.”

Law Forward has sued the fraudulent electors as well as the lawyers who assisted them “and falsely sought to have these votes counted as if they were Wisconsin’s 10 Electoral College votes,” Barnes said. It’s the first such civil suit in the nation. 

Mel Barnes of Law Forward | Screenshot via Zoom
Mel Barnes of Law Forward | Screenshot via Zoom

The effort to overturn the 2020 election results was a planned, coordinated campaign, she added, that relied on lawyers including former Wisconsin judge Jim Troupis, who worked to “substitute the will of these 10 individuals for that of the voters of Wisconsin.” 

And Wisconsin’s 10 fake electors weren’t just “random people who walked in off the street,” Barnes emphasized, but powerful political actors including then-chair of the Republican Party of Wisconsin Andrew Hitt and current Wisconsin Elections Commission member Robert Spindell.

“They violated our state law and they violated one of our most important values as Americans that in our democracy, voters decide who wins elections,” she said. “And we know that unless the bad actors are held accountable, this will happen again, and we simply can’t afford for this to become a regular feature of our elections.“

Former Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney contrasted the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection with the massive protests in Wisconsin in 2011 over former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting Act 10 law. Mahoney was part of a law enforcement effort that kept the peace during those massive 2011 protests and, he added, “did it successfully without major arrests, without an injury. without a major disruption of  democracy and most certainly without an attempted overthrow of our government.”

Former Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney | Screenshot via Zoom
Former Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney | Screenshot via Zoom

Turning to the attacks on the Capitol police in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6, Mahoney expressed his shock:  “Some of those law enforcement officers lost their lives defending our democracy,” he said. “Their families will be disrupted forever because of the actions of the citizens who were encouraged by the highest office in our land, by elected lawmakers in conspiracy with Wisconsin lawmakers, who attempted in some fashion to overthrow our government. Even today, I am bewildered that the citizens I swore an oath to protect turn their back turned their back on the men and women who served them every day.”

Joe Zepecki, a veteran Democratic communications director and consultant in Wisconsin who is working with the Defend Democracy Project, tied the insurrection and efforts to undermine the 2020 election to Wisconsin Republicans’ ongoing investigations and “fraudulent audits” of voting practices in the state. “We know that certain Republican lawmakers have introduced bills in the state Legislature to either decertify the 2020 election or to monkey around with future elections. We know that all four Republican candidates for governor in Wisconsin have pledged to eliminate the Wisconsin Elections Commission.”

Zepecki defended the work of Wisconsin’s election officials and warned against Republican plans to put partisans in charge of who wins or loses elections. “If that is where we go, we are no longer a functioning democracy,” he said.

The good news, Zepecki said, is that the same rules apply in the upcoming 2022 elections that applied in previous  elections for voters who want to request an absentee ballot or vote early in person. “The danger here is that without accountability, in elections going forward in the future it will be harder for legal citizens to vote according to the law,” he added. “And it will be more likely that those legally cast ballots are invalidated by partisan elected officials. And that, to me, is the thing that we have to guard against.” 

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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 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.