Tensions are escalating in the Badger State as Republican lawmakers plow ahead with a brazen legislative power grab during the lame duck session.
Protesters descended on the Capitol building in Madison on Monday for the lone hearing before a Tuesday vote on a far-reaching package of bills to curb the authority of Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers.
Evers himself has promised to “take any steps possible” to block Republican lawmakers, and nationally prominent Democratic lawyers are poised to go to court on behalf of progressive groups to fight any limit on early voting.
The GOP controls both the state assembly and state Senate, and no Republican lawmaker has signaled plans to vote against them. Outgoing Gov. Scott Walker’s history of supporting these kind of norm-breaking legislative moves suggests he will sign the bills into law.
Republicans “are trying to undo the results of the November 2018 elections by taking constitutional power away from the incoming Governor and Attorney General and trying to rig future elections by changing the voting rules for their own partisan advantage,” Scot Ross, director of progressive group One Wisconsin Now, said in a Monday press call.
The grab-bag of proposals advancing to a vote this week include all of the measures Republican lawmakers publicly toyed with after their party was swept at the state level on Nov. 6.
Among the bill’s many provisions: preventing the state from dropping out of a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care act; moving the date of the 2020 presidential primary to boost the electoral prospects of a Republican state Supreme Court justice; limiting early voting to two weeks; reducing the powers of incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul; and limiting Evers’ authority to implement state laws and make appointments to state agencies.
These proposals would cost taxpayers millions of dollars, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Moving the presidential primary to March 2020 in order to reduce the number of Democrats who turn out to a scheduled Supreme Court election the next month would cost an estimated $7 million, according to the newspaper. Taxpayers will also be on the hook for costs associated with legal challenges to efforts to restrict early voting.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have endorsed these proposals as essential to rebalancing state government, with Vos acknowledging that they may have “made some mistakes giving too much power to Gov. Walker.”
Walker himself has not yet said whether he would sign off on the bill.
But in anticipation that Walker will do so, local Indivisible chapters, One Wisconsin, and Move On are convening at the Capitol on Monday to attend the Joint Finance Committee hearing. Attendees are being urged to offer testimony expressing opposition to the proposed legislation.
Possible legal challenges are also being coordinated. Perkins Coie partner Marc Elias publicly threatened to sue Wisconsin if the state attempts to “disenfranchise voters by cutting early voting.” During One Wisconsin’s Monday press call, Elias’ colleague Bruce Spiva said they would consider filing a contempt motion in a separate, ongoing early voting case against the state if the legislature moves forward.
Perkins Coie was involved in a 2016 lawsuit to strike down previous limits to early voting that ended with a federal judge determining that Republican lawmakers were “stifling votes for partisan gain.” Larger cities like Milwaukee and Madison expanded voting hours and polling locations in response to the ruling, and the case is currently pending appeal.
“If the Legislature is again contemplating the hours and the days of early voting, that would directly conflict with the injunction that Judge Peterson put in place,” Spiva said on the press call, according to the Journal-Sentinel.
Evers has also said he is open to legal action if the legislature forces the bill package through. The mild-mannered former state schools superintendent had hoped to usher in a new era of bipartisan compromise, but he appears to be adopting a firmer line as GOP lawmakers threaten to derail his agenda before he even takes office.
“Everything’s on the table,” Evers said Saturday when asked by the Journal-Sentinel about the prospects of lawsuits.
“We’re exploring options — all of them,” Evers said, calling the Republicans’ proposals an “embarrassment” and “repudiation of the last election.” “But we hope not to take them. We hope legislators will rethink their strategy.”
Evers’ hands are tied by Republicans’ control of both chambers in the legislature. A heavily gerrymandered map helped Republicans maintain control even as Democrats won a greater percentage of the vote. The GOP ended up losing just one seat in the Assembly and gaining a seat in the state Senate.
But progressives are hoping to sway some Republican lawmakers who may be uneasy about voting for the blockbuster bill.
In videos shared by Move On’s Washington director Ben Wikler, protesters paraded through the Capitol Monday chanting, “Stop this coup! Respect our votes” and “protect our votes.”