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Michael A. Cohen

Power grab in Wisconsin and Michigan is an assault on democracy

Wisconsin State Sen. Tim Carpenter questions a list of about 50 appointment referrals submitted to the Senate in Madison on Dec. 4.
Wisconsin State Sen. Tim Carpenter questions a list of about 50 appointment referrals submitted to the Senate in Madison on Dec. 4. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

The strength of democracy, as a political system, relies on political leaders recognizing that they govern at the whim of voters.

It means showing respect for the will of the electorate and the legitimacy of the electoral process.

And it means surrendering power peacefully, for which the first American president, George Washington, is rightfully lauded by historians.

Even today, it is often said that the strength of a new democracy cannot be judged by what happens in its first election, but rather in its second.

That’s why what is unfolding in Wisconsin and Michigan should be setting off alarm bells. Republican legislators there are using a lame-duck session to subvert an electoral outcome and make a mockery of representative democracy.

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In both states, Republicans lost the races for governor and attorney general but, because of highly gerrymandered legislative districts, still control the state legislatures. Rather than accept their repudiation at the polls, they are seeking to take power away from their political opponents and enshrine into law policies firmly rejected by voters just one month ago.

In Michigan, Republicans have already undermined a minimum-wage increase and are now trying to take away the Democratic governor-elect’s ability to oversee the state’s campaign finance law. State legislators are also seeking to reduce the power of the newly elected Democratic attorney general by giving themselves the ability to intervene in legal challenges to existing state law.

In Wisconsin, the GOP-controlled state Assembly and state Senate have enacted a cut to early voting that was previously struck down by the courts. They passed a law forcing Governor-elect Tony Evers to implement a work requirement to Medicaid that he opposes — and they’ve taken this a step further by forcing him to get the Legislature’s permission to implement any changes to federal programs. Republicans are also trying to prevent the Democratic attorney general from removing Wisconsin from litigation that would, in effect, crater the Affordable Care Act. As in Michigan, they have given themselves the power legally to defend laws that he will not. In addition, the outgoing governor, Scott Walker, who lost reelection to Evers, is continuing the partisan power grab that has defined his eight years in office by appointing 82 public officials in one day — some of whom have received no confirmation hearing in the state Legislature.

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These antidemocratic efforts are not new. In 2016, North Carolina Republicans tried a similar gambit after Democrat Roy Cooper won the governor’s mansion.

Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has defended the GOP’s actions by warning, “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”

Of course, he is right, but that’s why we have elections in America — so voters can choose the governing agenda they prefer. To suggest, as Vos has, that election results count only when your side wins is to invalidate the whole notion that democracy is a competition of ideas. For Republicans, political power is a tool to be wielded in pursuit of gaining more political power — and voter preferences are merely a trifling inconvenience that can be ignored.

What makes this particularly galling is that Democratic candidates in the legislature received 54 percent of the vote in last month’s midterm election but, because of Republican gerrymandering, the GOP has 64 percent of the seats in the state assembly. So a minority of Republicans are basically overruling the majority of Wisconsinites.

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All of this has a deeply corrosive effect on democratic legitimacy — particularly coming two months after Republicans rammed through a Supreme Court nominee, two years after usurping the ability of a Democratic president to appoint his selection to the court.

Why should any American have confidence that their votes will be respected when Republicans make clear that they won’t respect outcomes that go against them?

Considering that President Trump said in 2016 he might not accept the results of the presidential election if he lost, what is happening in Wisconsin and Michigan is a potential harbinger of what might happen in 2020 if Trump loses reelection.

A situation in which one side will not accept losing elections cannot remain a healthy democracy. For the past two years there have been warnings that American democracy is under assault. In Wisconsin and Michigan it’s happening before our very eyes.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.