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Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison, Wis.
Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison, Wis.Universal Images Group via Getty Images, file

Wisconsin court delivers another setback to the state's democracy

It’s a common cliché : Elections have consequences. Evidently, it’s going to need an addendum: Elections have consequences, except in Wisconsin.


At first blush, a fight over Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board will probably seem like an obscure and irrelevant controversy to a national audience, but don’t be too quick to look past this one.

Let’s briefly review the basics. In 2015, then Republican-Gov. Scott Walker appointed Dr. Frederick Prehn — a dentist, a gun store owner, and former cranberry farmer — to a state board that sets Wisconsin policies related to wildlife, air and water resources, etc. It was a six-year appointment, which meant Prehn’s term ended in 2021.

Now that Wisconsin has a Democratic governor, Tony Evers, he had his own ideas about who should serve on state policymaking boards, and his plans didn’t include Prehn. The trouble is, when Prehn’s term ended last year, he said he didn’t want to leave — or more specifically, he’d only leave if his successor was confirmed.

Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be problematic, except Wisconsin’s state Senate has a gerrymandered Republican majority, which has decided it won’t even consider the Democratic governor’s nominees, leaving the defeated former governor’s team in place.

In other words, voters elected Evers, but Evers is stuck with some of his Republican predecessor’s appointees — who are pursuing policies the elected governor opposes — thanks to the intransigence of a gerrymandered legislative majority.

The good news is, this led to litigation. The bad news is, the Republicans’ allies on the state Supreme Court sided with the state Senate and the Walker appointee. The New York Times reported:

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday effectively handed the Republican-controlled State Senate broad authority over the composition of state boards and commissions, three and a half years into the term of a Democratic governor whose duties include naming board members.

It was a 4-3 ruling, with the elected conservative majority endorsing the GOP’s line. (In Wisconsin, state Supreme Court elections are technically non-partisan, but it’s painfully obvious which judicial candidates enjoy which candidates’ backing.)

It’s worth emphasizing that in an overly literal reading of state statues, board members are, in fact, supposed to serve until their successors are confirmed, so as to avoid vacancies. But state statutes also set a specific timeline for service.

In other words, when Wisconsin’s laws were created, policymakers didn’t envision a system in which state senators would simply refuse to confirm nominees in order to reward the appointees of a defeated former governor.

The state Supreme Court signed off all of this anyway, endorsing a governing dynamic in which Walker appointees are now effectively squatting on state boards, despite their terms having ended.

It’s evidence of a state’s democracy suffering a serious setback, but it’s not the only evidence.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, Democrats had a good year in Wisconsin in 2018, with big wins up and down the ballot. As we discussed at the time, Wisconsin voters elected a Democratic governor, re-elected a Democratic U.S. senator, re-elected a Democratic secretary of state, and elected a Democratic state attorney general. Even in the state legislature, Democratic candidates easily won the most votes.

Republican officials in the state could’ve honored the results. Instead, they responded to the defeats in the most unhealthy way possible: They launched a radical power-grab to undermine the winning candidates’ governing options.

Robin Vos, the Speaker of the Republican-led state Assembly, defended his party’s tactics, arguing a month after the 2018 elections, “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.”

In other words, GOP officials disagreed with the voters’ choices, so they felt justified in ignoring democracy. In their model, the right to govern doesn’t come from the electorate; it comes from what Republicans decide they’re willing to tolerate.

Political scientist Seth Masket wrote at the time, “Wisconsin has been one of the best functioning democracies in the U.S. for at least a century. What’s going on in Wisconsin today shouldn’t be dismissed as just one state’s experience. If democracy can die there, it can die anywhere.”

Two years later, in 2020, Democrats had another good year in the Badger State — the party’s presidential ticket narrowly carried Wisconsin, reversing a defeat from four years earlier — at which point local Republicans grew even more brazen in their rejection of democracy, embracing the fake electors scheme and launching an utterly bonkers sham election “audit.”

Late last year, then-Republican state Sen. Kathy Bernier, a former chair of the chamber’s elections committee, condemned her party’s anti-election conspiracy theories and urged officials to stop weakening public confidence in a functioning electoral system for no reason. Choking back tears, the GOP legislator added that she feared “we’re in jeopardy of losing” our system of government.

Republican antics in the Badger State have only gotten worse since she made the comments.

It’s as common a cliché as you’ll hear in politics: Elections have consequences. Evidently, it’s going to need an addendum: Elections have consequences, except in Wisconsin, where the consequences are whatever Republicans say they are.

The GOP’s posture is based on an elitist arrogance that democracy is an annoyance that must occasionally be ignored. It’s a sentiment that effectively asks, “Who are the voters to tell us what to do with state government?”