Power Grabs in Wisconsin and Michigan Undermine Democracy

Lawmakers are using special sessions to pass anti-democratic measures — and undermine the will of voters

December 3, 2018

Update: In Wisconsin, both chambers of the GOP-led state legislature approved on Wednesday legislation that will weaken the new administration’s powers. In Michigan, a similar bill passed in the House on Wednesday and awaits a Senate vote on Thursday.

Amid record-breaking turnout in last month’s midterm elections, Wisconsin and Michigan voters elected Democrats to replace Republicans for top statewide offices. In response, GOP lawmakers in both states are using lame-duck sessions to push sweeping legislation that would limit the power of the incoming Democratic officials.

These power grabs echo efforts in 2016 by GOP lawmakers in North Carolina to disempower Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper following his election. Those efforts were met with multiple legal challenges. The Brennan Center filed briefs arguing that the efforts were unconstitutional.

If passed, the proposed bills in Wisconsin and Michigan would reduce access to the political process, undermine the authority of several statewide offices — and thwart the will of voters. 

Suppressing the vote in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin last month, Democrats won election to every constitutional office, including governor and attorney general. Nearly 60 percent of eligible Wisconsin voters participated in the election, a record turnout for a midterm in the state. However, Wisconsin Republicans, helped by gerrymandering, maintained control of the state legislature. And on Friday they released a sweeping package of bills that would limit the powers of Democratic Governor-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul. The moves could impact ongoing debates in the state on the Affordable Care Act and banning guns in the capitol. The GOP is rushing to hold a hearing on the bills on Monday and take floor votes on Tuesday. If passed, the bills would head to outgoing Republican Governor Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin GOP’s lame-duck package also contains measures that would make it harder to vote in the battleground state. It includes a proposal that would make it difficult for Evers to challenge the state’s restrictive voter ID law. Another proposal in the package would limit in-person early voting to a two-week window before elections. Currently, municipalities determine their own in-person early voting dates and hours, and some communities provide up to six weeks of early voting. In 2016, a federal judge struck down a similar law that limited early voting, ruling that it “intentionally discriminates on the basis of race.”

Wisconsin Republicans are also attempting to move the state’s 2020 presidential primary race a month earlier to March. By reducing turnout in April, the move is expected to benefit conservative state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, who has fought to defend Wisconsin’s heavily gerrymandered political maps, and who is up for re-election. There is also a bill that would weaken the authority of the attorney general by allowing Republican leaders to intervene in court cases and hire their own attorneys when state laws are challenged.

Undermining campaign finance system oversight in Michigan

In Michigan, Democrats will concurrently hold the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state offices for the first time in 28 years. All three top offices will be held by women after a midterm election with the state’s highest turnout since 1970. Michiganders also voted in favor of several democracy-related measures in last month’s midterm elections, including automatic voter registration (AVR) and redistricting reform. However, Michigan’s GOP-led legislature, which like Wisconsin's has been boosted by a partisan gerrymander, has introduced a series of bills that would curb the power of incoming Democrats, with implications for election reform in the state.

In Michigan, the Secretary of State’s office is traditionally responsible for overseeing the state’s campaign finance system. That area is of particular interest to Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson, who ran on a platform focused on election transparency and informing the public about campaign spending. But one of the GOP’s lame-duck bills would remove the Secretary of State’s campaign finance oversight, creating instead a six-person bipartisan commission, with panel members nominated by both Republican and Democratic parties.

Lawmakers have also proposed a bill that would enable the state House and Senate to intervene in any legal proceedings involving the state, which currently falls under the authority of the attorney general’s office. Yet another pending bill would prohibit the government from requiring nonprofits — including ones that spend heavily on elections — to disclose their donors without a warrant. There are also concerns that the lame-duck measures could compromise Michigan’s newly-adopted citizens redistricting commission, which voters passed via ballot initiative in November.

A troubling trend of undermining election results

The lame-duck power grabs in Wisconsin and Michigan echo a similar push in North Carolina following the 2016 elections. Shortly before Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper took office, the GOP-led state legislature introduced a series of bills that attempted to limit the authority of his office, including its oversight of the state’s election oversight board. Those attempts were met with multiple legal challenges. Some of the litigation is still pending, but North Carolina’s courts have repeatedly struck down the legislature’s efforts.

Taken together, these power grabs represent a worrying trend that undermines both election results and efforts to advance our democracy.

This post been updated throughout. 

(Image: Shutterstock)