The people who educate voters and provide technical advice have had to put aside policy work for a bigger mission: saving democracy.
Lisa Mueller would rather be advocating on behalf of the environment and helping good ideas become bills, rules, and laws. Instead, the Ellsworth resident is advocating on behalf of democracy, to ensure that there’s still a way for good ideas to become law in the first place. She’s doing this new kind of political work even as two family members battle cancer and her two adult children prepare for moves to new, faraway places.
“I would dearly love to spend as much time as possible with my family because time is precious,” Mueller said. “But I need to divide my time because of the importance of working to save our democracy. The fact that I must spend time disabusing voters that what happened in 2020 was not fraudulent only hinders my ability to advocate for policy issues that matter to this country.”
Mueller is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit asking a court to declare Sen. Ron Johnson and US Reps. Tom Tiffany and Scott Fitzgerald in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Disqualification Clause and disallowed from appearing on ballots for reelection for their roles in undermining public trust in the 2020 presidential election and encouraging the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The 10 plaintiffs must first prove their standing to bring the lawsuit, showing personal harm beyond that of any other American voter. In each case, the plaintiffs are pointing to their work helping voters understand and navigate the democracy that’s been threatened by the insurrection and its continued public support.
“I am angry that my ability to educate voting citizens is compromised,” said Dan Russler, a technical writer from Helenville. He identifies as a swing voter and said he provides evidence-based analysis on the return on investment of taxpayer dollars based on the policy decisions of elected officials. But he said he cannot be detached about assessing the pros and cons of how Johnson, Tiffany, and Fitzgerald will decide on policy matters when it’s apparent to him that they engaged in misconduct.
“I can’t use my specialized skills to aid the voting public,” said Russler.
In other words, it’s hard for democracy’s helpers to be very helpful to voters when democracy itself is in peril, as is the case now when a former president is lying about losing and encouraging efforts to wrestle control of elections away from independent oversight.
“I feel personally aggrieved by the conduct [of Johnson, Tiffany, and Fitzgerald,” said Mueller, “because I’ve literally lost years of my life pushing back on all the ways President Trump violated our country’s rights, my rights, the rights of my friends and family—along with all those who support the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.”
Mueller’s background is in conservation biology. Her work in the past has involved persuading elected officials to adopt climate and energy policies that are good for the environment—and helping others understand how to be an advocate. She has also done volunteer work on local issues and the statewide movement for nonpartisan redistricting known as Fair Maps. But she and the other plaintiffs say they cannot spend time on helping encourage good policy if government itself is under the threat of authoritarianism.
“I am compelled to devote time and effort in my political activity to assuring that my fellow citizens are educated on these matters in addition to policy topics,” said plaintiff Margeret DeMuth of Lake Mills. “This additional effort is necessary in order to help people feel that citizen action such as voting is worth their time. In recent months of phoning and canvassing neighbors to talk about voting and to learn about what matters to them, I am hearing a fervent concern that politicians are corrupt and cannot be trusted. This detracts from the essential work of understanding the choices that impact voters in the 2022 and future elections.”
The Disqualification Clause prevents anyone who has taken part in an insurrection against the US from holding federal public office. It was added to the Constitution after the Civil War to prevent members of Congress who had fought for the Confederacy from returning to their legislative positions.
In weeks prior to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, Johnson, Tiffany, and Fitzgerald said they would object to certifying Electoral College results confirming that then-candidate Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the presidential election.
Gerald Lisi of Rice Lake, another of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the actions of Johnson, Tiffany, and Fitzgerald disparaging Biden’s victory over Trump—despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the election—have created a false narrative that is dangerous to democracy.
As a result, many of his neighbors “believe passionately that the election was stolen from Trump,” Lisi said. “They’re getting all riled up. We can’t just let these representatives run around making up stuff.”
Election results show Biden defeated Trump in Wisconsin by nearly 21,000 votes. Recounts have confirmed Biden as the winner of the race.
This spring, Mueller was a volunteer in a local election recount where her preferred candidate fell two votes short. The manual recount affirmed the original total was correct. “My preferred candidate lost, but I was happy to congratulate the winner. This experience reinforced my faith in our elections system and in the people who run our elections.”
To borrow a well-worn Wisconsin phrase: This is what democracy looks like. The question is whether it will continue to look that way if those who conspired, aided, and participated in an insurrection are allowed to run for office in a form of government they have been acting to destroy.