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A Ray of Bipartisan Hope in Wisconsin

After years of state GOP skulduggery, some Republican lawmakers have become willing make common cause with Democrats on election oversight.
May 17, 2023
A Ray of Bipartisan Hope in Wisconsin
A man takes a picture of the police cars in front of the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, on January 17, 2021 (Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI / AFP) (Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Moments after the press conference, as we stood just outside the Wisconsin state assembly in the state capitol, lawmaker Sylvia Ortiz-Velez shared with me a somewhat personal yet highly pertinent fact about herself, given the “minefield” she acknowledges having entered into: “I like my toes.”

Ortiz-Velez, a Democratic state representative from Milwaukee, has good reason to worry about her digits. The press conference at which she had just spoken was about a package of bills having to do with how elections in Wisconsin are conducted. She and five other lawmakers—three Democrats and three Republicans—had taken turns touting election fixes that they could all get behind.

That’s huge.

Election rules in the key battleground state of Wisconsin, like elsewhere, are often fraught with bitter contention. GOP lawmakers here have pushed through strict voter ID laws and gotten their friends on the Wisconsin Supreme Court to ban absentee ballot drop boxes that had been used without problems for many years. (The court, following the costliest judicial race in U.S. history, will shift from having a conservative to a liberal majority in August, so decisions like this one could be revisited.)

In 2022, Wisconsin was ranked the fourth-hardest state in the nation in which to cast a vote by the Cost of Voting Index, a project of Northern Illinois University that weighs 33 variables. And that was after Governor Evers vetoed a slew of GOP-backed bills to make it harder to vote, including new limits on the use of absentee ballots and new rules barring election officials from filling out missing voter information.

Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin have also shamelessly gerrymandered the state’s voter boundaries to ensure that they completely dominate the legislature even though they typically garner only about half the statewide vote. The party now enjoys a 22-11 supermajority in the state senate and a near-supermajority of 64-35 in the state assembly.

And GOP lawmakers have played a key role in manufacturing distrust of the 2020 election results in Wisconsin, where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by about 21,000 votes. Denialism persists despite, as the Associated Press cataloged last week, “two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a conservative law firm’s review, numerous state and federal lawsuits and even a Republican-ordered investigation by a former state Supreme Court justice.” That investigation, ordered up by state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, has cost taxpayers about $2.5 million so far while turning up zero evidence of fraud, other than the “Big Lie” to which the investigation owes its own existence.

Meanwhile, the misconduct that actually occurred during the 2020 election in Wisconsin has gone unpunished. Six weeks after Trump lost the election, a group of 10 Wisconsin Republicans—which included then–state GOP chairman Andrew Hitt—met in secret to sign a document falsely declaring that Trump had won Wisconsin; the scheme was part of a multi-state plot to steal the election.

In March 2022, the Wisconsin Elections Commission unaminously voted not to sanction these fake electors. Last week, Wisconsin Judge Frank Remington ordered the commission to take up this issue again—this time without letting GOP commissioner Robert Spindell, one of the fake electors, take part in the process, as was earlier allowed. (I am not making any of this up.)

What, pray tell, could the two parties agree on that is worth risking having one’s toes blown off? Plenty, it turns out.

There are seven bills in the election reform package that were discussed at the May 4 press conference. One, championed by Rep. Ortiz-Velez, would declare that persons convicted of campaign finance violations must relinquish control of their campaign coffers, the contents of which would then be refunded or donated to the common school fund—none of which is required by current law. This “hole” in the law came to light after an alderperson in Milwaukee was convicted of two felonies for misusing campaign funds for, as Ortiz-Velez explained it to me, “taking her family to vacation, paying her rent, fixing her car, a variety of things that any person can clearly see [are] not campaign-related.” And yet, even after a conviction that required removal from office, the alderperson was still listed as campaign treasurer.

State Senator Mark Spreitzer, a Democrat who signed on to the bill’s co-sponsorship memo, told me the change “just seems like common sense. Obviously, not all common sense bills pass, you know, but having it be bipartisan is a good start.”

Other bills in the package would provide local governments with state financial assistance toward some of the costs of special elections; require elections officials to review extra signatures submitted on candidate nomination papers if needed to make up for other signatures deemed invalid; mandate that municipalities that livestream election canvassing proceedings to archive and retain the recordings for nearly two years; codify the rules regarding filing of absentee ballots by members of the military; and make it harder for municipalities to close polling places, as has happened on a large scale in Milwaukee and Green Bay.

A seventh bill would increase protections for election workers in several ways. First, it prohibits the disclosure of personally identifiable information of election officials other than their names and what municipality they’re from. Second, it makes it a class I felony to “intentionally cause bodily harm” to an election official acting in his or her official capacity; and lastly, it provides whistleblower protection to election officials “who witness and report election fraud or irregularities.”

In sum, the bills all seem to address real problems in sensible ways. They are not meant to favor one or the other political party, hence the support they are getting from both. But most importantly, they are being offered in the spirit of bipartisan collegiality, in an area that has been mostly occupied by partisan strife.

Why is this happening?

Given the vast majorities they hold in both legislative houses, Republicans have no need for Democratic support to pass any bills they’d like, although having Democrats on board will make it less likely that Democratic Governor Tony Evers will reach for his veto pen. As incredible as it sounds, there seems to be a genuine desire on the part of at least some GOP lawmakers to do something in this area of governing that is neither self-serving nor insane.

At the presser, state Rep. Scott Krug, the Republican who chairs the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, referred to the proposals as “some common sense election reform bills that will enhance the already safe and secure elections that we have here in the state of Wisconsin” (emphasis added). He told the few reporters in attendance that passage of such legislation is “going to be our biggest priority this session. We’re a committee that’s going to be dedicated to more collegiality, more common sense, and more problem-solving than problem-creation.”

Added state Rep. Shae Sortwell, also a Republican: “There’s been a lot of, shall we say, rhetoric, over the last couple of years for both sides. And we want to tone that down, and we want to just look at: what can we do to improve our systems.”

This was followed by Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee thanking her Republican colleagues for engaging in a “process of give and take” to arrive at a package of bills that will build confidence in state elections. “I believe that we need more of what we are doing today,” she said. “We stand here because we care about our democracy.” She noted that while Wisconsin elections “have been some of the safest and some of the most secure in our country, we also have had some of the worst voter disenfranchisement in our state’s history.”

None of the Republicans who spoke, also including state Sen. André Jacque, contradicted her. “Always pleased to be part of bipartisan conversations,” Jacque said.

Krug’s predecessor as elections committee chair, GOP Rep. Janel Brandtjen, embraced debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and called for Biden’s state win to be decertified, warning ominously that “tyranny is at Wisconsin’s door.” She used the committee as a tool to subvert democracy and promote Trump’s delusions. Predictably, he threw his support behind her.

But Brandtjen’s nuttiness eventually came to be seen as a liability. Last November, shortly after the midterm elections in which Evers beat Trump’s handpicked choice for governor, Brandtjen’s fellow Republicans expelled her from their caucus, meaning she can no longer attend closed caucus meetings. “The continual issues from the past have led our caucus to lose trust in you,” she was informed via letter. She called her expulsion from the caucus “petty.” Despite Trump’s endorsement, Brandtjen was handily eliminated in the February special primary election for a state senate seat, although she remains a member of the state assembly.

Last week, Republicans tapped state Sen. Dan Knodl—who won the primary over Brandtjen and went on to narrowly clinch the seat in a special general election in April, preserving the party’s supermajority in that chamber—to chair his chamber’s newly created Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection Committee. Knodl was one of 15 Wisconsin lawmakers, all Republicans, who joined with lawmakers around the nation in signing a Jan. 5, 2021, letter asking then-Vice President Mike Pence to hold off on certifying the 2020 presidential results. The next day—well, you know what happened.

“Senator Knodl actively worked to thwart the peaceful transition of power,” said Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, a Democrat from Madison, in a statement. “He does not respect the nation’s longstanding democratic processes and is unfit to chair a committee exercising some oversight of Wisconsin’s elections.” Knodl, in a published column, said Agard’s comments are “unfortunate and immediately sets up an adversarial relationship regarding election oversight.”

Knodl has defended the letter, which Brandtjen and Jacque also signed, claiming there were “abnormalities” in the vote that needed to get sorted out. He has also conceded the election result, saying “President Biden is the president.” He said in the column that “making sure our elections are fair and accurate should be a bipartisan effort.”

Let’s be clear: There are no signs that bitter partisan division in Wisconsin is a thing of the past, or that the toxins pumped by Trump into the body politic have been purged. Even in the narrow area of election law, nobody is plugging quarters into the jukebox that plays “Kumbaya.”

The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, made up of three Democratic and three Republican members appointed by state lawmakers and the governor, is urging state Republicans to support stand-alone legislation to create an inspector general office to increase public confidence in the integrity elections. The proposed Office of Election Transparency and Compliance, with a staff of 10 and $1.9 million budget over two years, would handle election-related concerns and respond to the swelling number of records requests, many from people convinced by the rantings of Trump and his acolytes that the election process is corrupt.

Funding for the office was included in Evers’s biennial budget but axed by legislative Republicans, along with some 500 other items. But it is something the lawmakers could revive at will. “I certainly hope it comes back,” Don Millis, the commission’s Republican chair, told the AP.

Krug promptly tossed cold water on the idea, indicating that he would rather increase resources at the local level, saying “I think it makes more sense for the municipalities to be in charge of their decision making and problem solving.”

So no, we have not reached a point where there is unanimity about how to solve problems having to do with elections. But, almost as miraculously, we have gotten to where lawmakers are identifying actual problems, as opposed to imaginary ones, and they even seem to believe the government has a role to play in addressing them. That’s progress.

While the news on the meaningful election security measures front isn’t always positive, other battleground states are also looking to add elections staff, improve training, and enhance security. In North Carolina, for instance, the state’s Democratic governor and GOP-controlled house have both introduced budgets that include funding for additional staff to help local elections officials address technological and security-related issues. In Georgia, where a grand jury is weighing whether to bring criminal charges against Trump and others for their efforts to force election officials in that state to break the law, the Republican-led general assembly has allocated $427,010 to provide additional election oversight.

Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen, which he repeated in his ghastly recent appearance on CNN, is wearing thinner by the day. Sane Republicans—of which there are some, if not in the halls of Congress then in statehouses across the land—are eager to distance themselves from not just the lies but the dysfunction. And that is a step in the right direction, especially if everyone manages to keep their toes intact.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.