Wisconsin Court Delivers Another Setback to State Democracy

On the surface, a row over the Wisconsin Natural Resources Council will likely seem like an obscure and irrelevant controversy to a national audience, but don’t rush past this one.

Let’s briefly review the basics. In 2015, then the Republican government. Scott Walker appointed Dr. Frederick Prehn—a dentist, gun store owner, and former cranberry farmer—to a state council that establishes Wisconsin policies regarding wildlife, air and water resources, etc. It was a six-year tenure, meaning Term Prehn ended in 2021.

Now that Wisconsin has a Democratic governor, Tony Evers, he had his own ideas about who should serve on state policy-making councils, and his plans didn’t involve Prehn. The problem is, when Prehn’s term expired last year, he said he didn’t want to leave – or more specifically, he would only leave if his successor was confirmed.

Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem, except that the Wisconsin state Senate has a gerrymanded Republican majority, which has decided they won’t even consider Democratic governor nominees, leaving the defeated former governor’s team in place.

In other words, the voters chose Evers, but Evers is stuck with some of his Republican predecessor’s appointees—who pursue policies that the elected governor opposes—thanks to the intransigence of a gerrymanded legislative majority.

The good news is that this has led to lawsuits. The bad news is that Republican allies in the Supreme Court have sided with the state senate and the Walker-appointed party. The New York Times reported

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday effectively gave the Republican-controlled state senate broad authority over the composition of state boards and committees, three and a half years into the term of a Democratic governor whose duties include appointing board members.

It was a 4-3 ruling, with the conservative majority elected endorsing the GOP’s line. (In Wisconsin, the Supreme Court elections are technically impartial, but it’s painfully clear which court candidates have the backing of which candidates.)

It is worth emphasizing that in an overly literal reading of state statues, board members are in fact expected to serve until their successors are confirmed, in order to avoid vacancies. But state statutes also establish a specific timeline for service.

In other words, when Wisconsin laws were made, policymakers envisioned no system in which state senators would simply refuse to confirm nominees to reward the appointees of a defeated former governor.

Regardless, the state Supreme Court approved all of this, approving a governing dynamic in which Walker appointees are now effectively squatting in state boards, despite their tenures having ended.

It is proof that a state’s democracy has suffered a serious setback, but it is not the only proof.

Circle back to our previous coverageDemocrats had a good year in Wisconsin in 2018, with big wins up and down. like us discussed at that time, voters in Wisconsin elected a Democratic governor, re-elected a Democratic U.S. Senator, re-elected a Democratic Secretary of State, and elected a Democratic state attorney general. Even in the state legislature, Democratic candidates easily won the most votes.

Republican officials in the state could have respected the results. Instead, they reacted to the defeats in the most unhealthy way: they launched a radical coup to undermine the winning candidates’ board options.

Robin Vos, the chairman of the Republican-led state assembly, defended his party’s tactics, to argue a month after the 2018 election, “We will have a very liberal governor who is going to adopt policies that are in stark contrast to what many of us believe in.”

In other words, GOP officials disagreed with the voters’ choices, so they felt justified in ignoring democracy. In their model, the right to rule does not come from the electorate; it comes from what Republicans decide they are willing to tolerate.

Political scientist Seth Masket wrote at the time“Wisconsin has been one of the best functioning democracies in the US for at least a century. What is happening in Wisconsin today cannot be dismissed as the experience of just one state. If democracy can die there, it can die anywhere.”

Two years later, in 2020, Democrats had another good year in Badger State — the party’s presidential ticket carried narrowly to Wisconsin, undoing a defeat four years earlier — at which point local Republicans got even bolder. in their rejection of democracy, and embraced the fake voter scheme and launching a totally insane sham election audit.

Late last year, when Republican State Senator Kathy Bernier, a former chairman of the chamber’s electoral commission, convicted her party’s anti-election conspiracy theories and urged officials to stop weakening public confidence in a functioning electoral system for no reason. The GOP lawmaker choked on tears, adding that she feared “we risk losing our system of government”.

Republican antics in Badger State have only gotten worse since she made the comments.

It is a cliché that you often hear in politics: elections have consequences. Apparently it needs an addendum: Elections have consequences, except in Wisconsin, where the consequences are what Republicans say they are.

The GOP’s stance is based on an elitist arrogance that democracy is an annoyance that should occasionally be ignored. It’s a sentiment that effectively asks, “Who are the voters to tell us what to do with the state government?”

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