Some Republicans in the state want to go so far as to decertify its 2020 electoral votes

By Dan Shafer

There’s been a low hum in Wisconsin for some time now. It started in the days following the November 2020 election, and it’s been droning ever since, an ever-present reminder of what Republicans have been suggesting for the last sixteen months: that certain votes cast by Wisconsinites do not count.

More than 1,630,000 Wisconsinites voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 election. Nearly five hundred days later, Republicans continue to refuse to recognize those votes as legitimate, even going as far to say they should be “decertified.” Never mind that decertifying an election has been deemed legally impossible. Never mind that we’re now closer to the midterms than the last presidential election. None of this has silenced the chorus of voices intent on casting aside the will of the people who exercised their essential American right to vote.

Polarization has become the norm in the state’s politics, and Biden’s victory in Wisconsin was a narrow one – just over twenty thousand votes separated him and Donald Trump in the final tally – but close contests are common here. Four of the six presidential elections since 2000 have been decided by a margin of less than one percent.

The reaction to this close election result has, of course, been quite different than in the past. Startlingly few Republicans, even now, have been willing to say publicly that they consider Biden’s victory to be legitimate. The latest Marquette University Law School Poll showed that more than sixty percent of Republican voters doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 results. This comes after a year of recounts, legal challenges, legislative hearings, and audits, all upholding the results of the 2020 election. And many of the votes Republicans want to invalidate belong to people of color who reside in urban centers and happen to vote in large majorities for Democrats, which is especially troubling.

Lately, the low hum of attacks on democracy has grown louder. The prime example came on March 1, at a hearing of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, where former State Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman – the man hand-picked by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to conduct an especially bizarre election probe –  presented the latest installment of his findings, saying the legislature “ought to take a very hard look” at decertifying the presidential election.

Gableman’s partisan “investigation” has been a sprawling, unaccountable, widely-panned endeavor that’s gone months past its contracted end date, become the target of lawsuits, and racked up a taxpayer price tag well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Gableman has even gone so far as to threaten to jail election officials and city mayors in recent weeks.

The Vos/Gableman mess is far from the only example of Republican efforts to claim certain votes don’t count. State Rep. Timothy Ramthun, who represents the most pro-Trump Assembly district in Wisconsin, introduced a resolution to decertify the election—the idea went viral in conspiratorial, election-denying corners of the internet, eventually gaining the attention and praise of a certain former U.S. president. Less than a month later, Ramthun was launching a campaign for governor with the support of election conspiracy theorists like pillow magnate Mike Lindell and former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

Other gubernatorial candidates are now tripping over themselves to out-MAGA each other as the primary heats up, with frontrunner Rebecca Kleefisch, the state’s former lieutenant governor under Scott Walker, now backing away from previous comments saying that Biden won Wisconsin, and instead refusing to acknowledge any legitimate winner.

There’s more, of course. Ramthun spoke at a February 15 Capitol rally in support of his decertification resolution. Joining him were former Menomonee Falls village president Jefferson Davis (yes, that’s really his name; no, the irony is not lost on us), who wants there to be a “full forensic physical and cyber audit” of the election, and State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who proudly proclaimed to those at the rally, “You’re not crazy.” Brandtjen’s presence was particularly significant, because Speaker Vos made her chair of the Assembly’s elections committee after she wrote in November 2020 that the election results should be overturned.

These are all things that have happened within the past month in Wisconsin. They represent just the tip of the iceberg for what’s been happening in the state since Biden’s victory. Legislative Republicans have passed a host of bills that would make it harder to vote, only for them to be vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers. But sometimes these attempts to limit legal voting make it through, like when a conservative judge recently ruled against the use of ballot drop boxes. Efforts to tackle voting rights at a federal level would have had a profound effect on a split-government state like Wisconsin, but Democrats were ultimately blocked by Senate Republicans (and two Democratic senators).

A full account of the anti-democracy measures and baseless “investigations” in Wisconsin since November 3, 2020, would fill a book. But the tell all along– beyond the lack of credible factual evidence – has been that Republicans have only questioned the results of Biden’s victory, never those of the 115 state legislators or eight members of Congress elected on those very same ballots; apparently, only the tops of the ballots were illegitimate.

Republicans’ dangerous attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election are a window into the unraveling of Wisconsin’s democracy. Our state legislature has an entrenched Republican majority after 2011 redistricting gave them essentially insurmountable margins. A Harvard study ranked the state’s legislative maps the nation’s worst, putting Wisconsin’s quality of elections on par with non-democracies like Jordan and Bahrain. This entrenched power is how Republicans can get away with something like the Gableman “investigation,” or have a representative as extreme as Ramthun, or put a conspiracy theorist in charge of the elections committee. It’s how they can become the nation’s least active full-time legislature and only grant a public hearing to less than one percent of the bills introduced by Democrats. It’s how, even after Democrats and Democratic-aligned candidates won eleven of the last twelve statewide elections, the GOP still wields more power in state government.

Wisconsin Republicans have been after power consolidation at all costs. Now, even when they lose, they can’t lose. Fringe actors use this to grab a foothold in the party’s mainstream. Leaders like Vos have invited them to do so every step of the way. It’s clear that party leadership has been playing with fire, and that they have no interest in stopping the blaze.

Wisconsin is a warning. The low hum is now an alarm. Once you decide, as members of the Wisconsin GOP have, that certain votes don’t count, you’ve begun a descent into democratic peril. We have been the testing ground for Republican political experiments for years now. If the right finds success in their latest trials– this time, on the issue of foundational democratic principles – the nation is next. ■



*Opinion and commentary columns are the work of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Belt Magazine or its parent organization, Belt Media Collaborative.

Dan Shafer is a veteran Milwaukee journalist who writes The Recombobulation Area, a newsletter on Milwaukee politics.

Cover image of the Wisconsin State Capitol Dome. Public Domain image.

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