Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) speaks ahead of the Assembly's vote on the 2021-23 state budget. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) speaks ahead of the Assembly's vote on the 2021-23 state budget. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

Republicans are trying to tear down a system they built to make the fourth change in 15 years on who controls the rules on voting.

Wisconsin is at the forefront of efforts taking place right now to undermine your confidence in elections and their outcomes—on multiple fronts. The most public scam is the most ridiculous. Republican legislators hired a right-wing former state Supreme Court justice to “investigate” last November’s election. Michael Gableman’s baseless, expensive, and sloppy oafishness is being widely and rightly ridiculed, but a far quieter threat is taking shape behind the scenes inside the state Capitol. It isn’t another attempt to relitigate the last election. It’s all about rigging results in the future.

Democracy only works so long as the public sees and trusts the referees, whether they are judges, lawmakers, or the officials who administer and oversee our elections. In Wisconsin, we may be headed for the fourth version of the state’s election oversight system in 15 years. 

The first model failed to prevent scandalous behavior by legislators in both parties in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The second version, created in 2007, received praise from around the nation for how to do things right. It was scrapped in 2015, giving us the third model—the one we have now—because the second version was doing its job too well for one party’s comfort. 

Now the Republicans who created the current system want to dissolve it and create a fourth iteration, a paper tiger that would give politicians the ability to actually overturn election results they don’t like.

Yes, it’s that serious. The right course is to go back to what was working. And in full disclosure, I was a state senator in the Wisconsin Legislature from 2007-2011.

The Government Accountability Board (GAB), created in 2007 by a nearly unanimous bipartisan vote of lawmakers, replaced a panel that had been appointed by politicians—who also controlled their budgets. The GAB, however, was composed of six retired judges with no recent political activity. Their budgets would face no legislative interference as they enforced campaign laws on contributions and potentially illegal activities. It was reported to be “the only nonpartisan elections and oversight board in the country,” attracting national accolades for its lack of partisanship. 

But when one of its investigations got too close to then-Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign to avoid a recall, he and legislative Republicans claimed the GAB was no longer working and needed to be replaced with what exists today: The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), a panel of three Republicans and three Democrats that has seen its fair share of 3-on-3 gridlock.

I know what you’re thinking: “If Republican lawmakers replaced the GAB with the current state Elections Commission in 2015 and they still control the Legislature today, why would they want to change election referees yet again?”

RELATED: Gableman’s Election Probe Started Out Badly. It’s Gotten Even Worse.

Look no further than the non-gridlocked WEC response to last November’s election, widely proven to be safe, secure, and fair—unless you supported former President Donald Trump and his ongoing effort to falsely claim the election process didn’t work and therefore needs to be changed. 

The WEC commissioners and staff stood with the many local elections clerks who performed heroically in administering safe and secure elections during a pandemic. For its efforts, the WEC is now the latest target for partisans who have hounded into retirement plenty of fellow Republicans who oversee elections at the state and local levels and committed the “sin” of rightly rejecting Trump’s attempt at creating a manufactured crisis to stay in power.

A new resolution being proposed by legislative Republicans is “calling for the resignation of the administrator, assistant administrator, and several members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission” and “to make criminal referrals to local district attorneys as appropriate.”

That’s right, Republican legislators’ response to their guy losing an election fair and square is to point at the refs and say, “Lock ‘em up.” 

It gets worse—unsurprisingly—thanks to US Sen. Ron Johnson, a superspreader of fact-challenged material and a past supporter of having Congress overrule the confirmed election results submitted by states. Johnson is calling for the Republicans running the Legislature to bypass the WEC and administer Wisconsin’s presidential and congressional elections themselves. Gableman has embraced the prospect already, even as he claims to be conducting a nonpartisan investigation.

Look how quickly things have escalated from working the refs to punishing the refs to replacing the refs entirely—with players from only one team. Who would watch that contest? Who would vote if they thought their ballot could be so easily ignored?

We expect to see elections undone with made-up claims of irregularities in other places, not in the oldest continuous democracy in existence. But if you think such an unchecked power grab is limited to places like Uganda, Hungary, Turkey, or Myanmar, think back to Jan. 6 when members of Congress like Wisconsin Republicans Tom Tiffany and Scott Fitzgerald voted to reject the verified election results of two states. It’s no longer unthinkable that legislators would try to intimidate members of the Elections Commission with threats to seek criminal charges or to disband the commission entirely.

All of these Republican efforts—casting doubt on verified results, attacks on the state Elections Commission, proposals to sharply limit absentee voting, and the Keystone Cop-level probe by Gableman—will fall short in 2021 thanks to clear-eyed judges and Gov. Tony Evers’ veto pen. But these are people playing the long game. They are signaling to their base—and to all of us—what they will put in place in 2023 if Evers loses his bid for re-election. Similarly high-stakes races will play out across the country in the coming year.

Then, in 2024, we’ll see how much more our referees and our rule book, the Constitution, can take after enduring the stress tests of popular vote losers claiming the presidency in 2000 and 2016, the insurrection of 2021, and the slow-motion coup attempt already happening before our eyes. It’s long past time to blow the whistle and start assessing some penalties.