I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in the Midwest and East as the political junkie son of moderate Republican parents. My folks had a deep reverence and admiration for the country’s first Republican president and arguably greatest chief executive, Abraham Lincoln.
Wisconsin State Journal (Op-Ed): The war on voting is doomed to fail
Wisconsin State Journal (Op-Ed): The war on voting is doomed to fail
One of the things I was most passionate and proud about was the leadership and dedication the Republican Party had played in promoting democracy and extending the right to vote throughout much of American history.
It was Lincoln and the Republicans, of course, who led the effort to end slavery and extend voting rights to African Americans following the Civil War. Republicans more than Democrats led the way in the late 19th and early 20th century to extend the right to vote to women, culminating in the 1920 election for president when women, voting for the first time, overwhelming supported the GOP candidate, Warren Harding, of my native Ohio.
Republicans provided significant and critical votes in Congress for passage of the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. And virtually all Republicans joined Democrats to extend the vote to 18- to 21-year-olds in 1971, a measure signed into law by GOP President Richard Nixon.
But then, in the late 1970s, the Republican Party began to significantly lose its way on voting rights. That’s when I abandoned the GOP. As the party strayed inexorably to the far right, it also moved into the darkness. It embraced the divisive and negative vision of Paul Weyrich of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation.
Weyrich infamously declared in 1980: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Weyrich, a Racine native, sadly, was repudiating the very pro-voting, pro-democracy principles the Republican Party was founded on by abolitionists in Ripon in 1854. Instead of the open-armed and embracing political party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Wisconsin’s own Robert M. La Follette, Warren Knowles and Lee Sherman Dreyfus, Republicans instead began to fear voters and voting. They betrayed their heritage and history by moving to make voting more difficult and restrictive. They began to target whole groups of citizens they viewed as not being politically supportive: urban dwellers, people of color, college and university students and even people with disabilities.
In 2011, the Republican-run Legislature and its Ronald Reagan-wannabe Gov. Scott Walker rammed through and enacted the most extreme and restrictive photo ID law in the country. Even states with long histories of voter suppression and disenfranchisement of people of color such as South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia didn’t limit as many types of photo ID that could be used to vote as much as Wisconsin did. We became the most challenging state in the nation for college students to vote in for students without Wisconsin driver’s licenses.
Since the voter photo ID law went into effect in 2016, thousands of Wisconsinites have been unable to vote because of difficulties obtaining one of the required forms of photo ID. That’s wrong on every level. Some states such as Michigan, which also has a photo ID law, permit voters unable to obtain a photo ID to still vote by signing a sworn affidavit. Not so in Wisconsin.
Republican Donald Trump in 2016 narrowly carried Wisconsin by 22,748 votes and won the presidency. That was fair and fine, according to Republicans.
But four years later, Democrat Joe Biden narrowly carried Wisconsin by 20,682 votes and won the presidency. Suddenly, despite a statewide canvass and a recount confirming that margin, Republicans said the Biden victory was “in doubt.” They claimed there “may have been widespread fraud” (there wasn’t) and illegal or inaccurate counting of absentee ballots (again, no proof or evidence). Conspiracy theories sprang up, and despite the filing of many pro-Trump lawsuits to reverse the result in Wisconsin in state and federal courts (all failed), Biden won Wisconsin decisively.
To try to appease the rabid Trumpers, conservative radicals and QAnon wingnuts — Wisconsin Republicans have fertilized the “big lie” that the 2020 election was somehow fraudulent and that Biden’s more than 7 million popular vote margin nationally and 20,682 vote margin here was a fiction. Wisconsin Republicans have suggested nonpartisan state and local election clerks and officials diabolically cheated Trump out a second term as president.
This was all patently untrue, and Wisconsin Republican leaders know it.
This charade and clown show continued throughout 2021 with the sham, open-ended investigation into fraud authorized by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and conducted by the least impartial and least respected former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in state history, Michael Gableman. Gableman consulted with Mike Lindell of Minnesota, the ridiculous “Pillow Man” turned Trump conspiracy theorist. The investigation is costing Wisconsin taxpayers nearly $700,000.
Then there are the outlandish and baseless allegations of voting fraud at nursing homes made against the Wisconsin Elections Commission — accusations even the Racine County district attorney won’t touch.
During 2021, the Legislature introduced numerous partisan measures seeking to suppress voting in Wisconsin. They targeted absentee voting in particular and even voters with disabilities.
Why? Because Republicans have cynically calculated that more Democrats than Republicans voted by absentee ballot in 2020. They think that by needlessly making it more difficult to vote, Republicans will outpoll Democrats in future elections.
All of these outrageous and ill-conceived measures have passed in the Republican-controlled Legislature without a single Democratic vote, and Gov. Tony Evers has wisely vetoed them. But while these anti-voter measures have absolutely no legitimacy, they serve as bait to ramp up the Trump base. Their sole purpose is to create further false outrage for the 2022 elections in Wisconsin and 2024 presidential election.
Will this cynical strategy of voter suppression succeed? No. Why? Because it is so transparently undemocratic and so profoundly un-American.
This country needs to have two or more vibrant political parties contesting elections and trying to win the battle of ideas by persuading voters that their proposals are best. But when one of the major political parties doesn’t really believe in elections and in democracy, then it follows that it can’t possibly win the hearts and minds of citizens at the ballot box because the outcome of free and fair elections doesn’t really matter to them.
That sick mindset will eventually destroy that party. If it ceases to believe in elections, then it will cease to be able to win them.
The great majority of Wisconsinites and Americans will never adopt that cynical and destructive vision. It’s up to Republicans to dramatically change direction and to again work to strengthen democracy instead of trying to destroy it.
Jay Heck is executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan advocacy group for good-government causes: 608-256-2686 and commoncausewisconsin.org.