Democracy Day in the wake of Republican attacks on elections

By: - September 15, 2022 6:45 am

Rep. Tim Ramthun addresses a crowd of election conspiracy theorists. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Logo for Democracy Day storyTwo months before Wisconsin’s midterm elections, only one of the 12 Republicans running for statewide office or Congress has fully accepted the results of the 2020 presidential election, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight

The state Republican Party’s acceptance of conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, which numerous audits, lawsuits, reviews and investigations have shown was won by President Joe Biden, have damaged people’s perceptions of democracy. 

A Marquette University Law School Poll released Wednesday showed that 56% of respondents are “very concerned” about “accurate vote counts.” Only 13% of Republicans, the poll shows, are “very confident” the votes were accurately cast and counted in 2020. 

Thursday is the international Day of Democracy, but in Wisconsin, democracy has been threatened by a party willing to go to great lengths to undermine the results of a presidential election it lost while it games the rules and legislative maps to prevent the other side from gaining significant political power in the state. 

The past two years in the state have seen a long and winding review of the 2020 election crash and burn when the man Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) hired to run it, former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, endorsed Vos’ primary election opponent. The Gableman review was widely criticized by members of both political parties for being unprofessional and harmful to democracy while it skirted the state’s open records laws and invited input from a menagerie of conspiracy theorists. 

 State Rep. Tim Ramthun (R-Campbellsport) ran a primary campaign for governor almost entirely on a platform of election denialism. Even after the end of the Gableman review, conspiracy theories about election administration continue.

In the two years of searching, Republicans have come up with little evidence of wrongdoing in 2020, repeatedly circling back to claiming grants from private organizations to help municipalities fund election administration amount to bribery, asking questions about voting in nursing homes and making false allegations that the state’s voter rolls are susceptible to fraud

Just this week, a group of Republicans including Vos and Wisconsin Elections Commission Chair Don Millis criticized the City of Milwaukee for accepting help from an outside group to register residents to vote. The city isn’t accepting funding for the canvassing nor doing the canvassing, just allowing a third-party group to go door-to-door registering voters. 

“I’m not asking anybody to cast their ballots for one party or another or one candidate or another,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said at an event earlier this week. “What I’m asking is for people to participate in our process and to make sure that their voice is heard at the ballot box.”

Despite Johnson’s statement that he doesn’t care what party people vote for, just that they participate, the Republicans referred to the effort as “Zuckerbucks 2.0” — a reference to the derisive term the party has coined to refer to the private grants received in 2020. The group attacked the registration effort despite several court rulings that private election grants aren’t illegal and don’t amount to election bribery. 

“We are demanding that the City of Milwaukee immediately cease assisting a privately-funded, liberal group in their efforts to only engage with and turn out certain voters,” the group of Republicans said in their statement. “Public resources should not be used for Get Out the Vote (GOTV) drives that inherently favor one party or candidate over another. The City of Milwaukee’s promotion and coordination of potentially illegal activities under the guise of canvassing is why Wisconsin voters have lost confidence in our elections. It is inappropriate for any municipality to support a GOTV campaign. Democrats continue to allow suspicious activity and highly partisan groups to mettle in our elections. Milwaukee Votes 2022 is essentially Zuckerbucks 2.0. This must stop now.”

The non-stop efforts by Republicans in the state Legislature to undermine elections in Wisconsin has led to the departure of one of the few Republicans willing to stand up to them. Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) has been one of the lone voices against the tide of election conspiracies, and on a Wispolitics.com panel this week said that countering them has made her want to “pull my hair out.” Bernier is retiring this year.

In addition to the conspiracy theories and baseless accusations of fraud, voters and communities across the state spent 10 years pushing for a fairer set of political maps for both the Legislature and the state’s congressional seats after the redistricting process in 2010 resulted in Wisconsin becoming one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. Instead, decisions from the conservative justices on both the U.S. and state Supreme Courts led to the political maps becoming even more tilted against Democrats

Against the backdrop of nearly two years of conspiracy theories and a political map designed to boost Republican candidates, the 12 Republicans running for the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, governor, secretary of state and attorney general have all reached varying conclusions on the question of the 2020 election, and their beliefs will play a major role in the future of democracy in the state. 

Some, such as U.S. Reps. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Tiffany, voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election on Jan. 6, 2021. Fitzgerald, who was previously the majority leader of the state Senate, reserved a room in the state Capitol building for a group of Republicans to meet and cast unauthorized Electoral College votes for then-President Donald Trump, despite the fact that he lost Wisconsin. 

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Another, Derrick Van Orden, who is running for the second time to represent the 4th Congressional District in the western part of the state, was a participant in the protests on Jan. 6 that culminated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Van Orden, who traveled to the protest using campaign money, has said he didn’t enter the Capitol grounds, though reporting from the Daily Beast suggests that isn’t true. 

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, running for re-election in a dead heat against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, has frequently spread conspiracy theories and tried to hand the false GOP electoral votes to Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6. 

Fitzgerald, Johnson, Tiffany and Van Orden are four of the 199 candidates across the country who have fully denied the 2020 election results. 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels has equivocated on the question of who he believes won the 2020 election, but his platform includes “election integrity,” and he’s promised to terminate the Wisconsin Elections Commission if elected. 

Even the statewide candidates who have accepted Biden won the election, Secretary of State candidate Amy Loudenbeck and Attorney General candidate Eric Toney, have participated in attacks on the state’s election system. 

Loudenbeck is running on a platform of giving control of the state’s election administration to the secretary of state’s office, a move Republicans surely won’t take if incumbent Doug La Follette wins re-election after they’ve spent years slowly chipping away at the duties of the office. 

Toney, the Fond du Lac County District Attorney, has charged several people in the county with election fraud after they made what they say are mistakes in attempting to cast a ballot. 

U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil is the only Republican of the 12 candidates to fully accept the results of the 2020 election, according to the FiveThirtyEight analysis. 

None of the Republicans in Wisconsin’s congressional delegation fared well in a recent Democracy Scorecard released by national pro-democracy group Common Cause. 

“Never has it been more important for voters to stand together and demand candidates tell them what they will do to strengthen our march toward a multi- racial, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic democracy that respects and works for everyone,” Common Cause president Karen Hobert Flynn wrote. “As they evaluate their representatives’ actions in office, constituents must discern truth from lies or disinformation. The stakes for our democracy couldn’t be higher.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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