Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
April 5, 2023
In yesterday’s election in Wisconsin, the two candidates represented very different futures for the country. One candidate for the state supreme court, Daniel Kelly, had helped politicians to gerrymander the state to give Republicans an iron lock on the state assembly and was backed by antiabortion Republicans. The other, Janet Protasiewicz, promised to stand behind fair voting maps and the protection of reproductive rights.
Wisconsin voters elected Protasiewicz by an overwhelming eleven points in a state where elections are usually decided by a point or so. Kelly reacted with an angry, bitter speech. “I wish that in a circumstance like this I would be able to concede to a worthy opponent,” he said. “But I do not have a worthy opponent to which I can concede.”
Yesterday’s vote in Wisconsin reinforces the polling numbers that show how overwhelmingly popular abortion rights and fair voting are, and it seems likely to throw the Republican push to suppress voting into hyperdrive before the 2024 election.
Since the 1980s, Republicans have pushed the idea of “ballot integrity” or, later, “voter fraud” to justify voter suppression. That cry began in 1986, when Republican operatives, realizing that voters opposed Reagan’s tax cuts, launched a “ballot integrity” initiative that they privately noted “could keep the black vote down considerably.”
That effort to restrict the vote is now a central part of Republican policy. Together with Documented, an investigative watchdog and journalism project, The Guardian today published the story of the attempt by three leading right-wing election denial groups to restrict voting rights in Republican-dominated states by continuing the lie that voting fraud is rampant.
The Guardian’s story, by Ed Pilkington and Jamie Corey, explores a two-day February meeting in Washington organized by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and attended by officials from 13 states, including the chief election officials of Indiana, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. At the meeting, participants learned about auditing election results, litigation, and funding to challenge election results. Many of the attendees and speakers are associated with election denial.
Since the 2020 election, Republican-dominated states have passed “election reform” measures that restrict the vote; those efforts are ongoing. On Thursday alone, the Texas Senate advanced a number of new restrictions. In the wake of high turnout among Generation Z Americans, who were born after 1996 and are more racially and ethnically diverse than their elders, care deeply about reproductive and LGBTQ rights, and want the government to do more to address society’s ills, Republican legislatures are singling out the youth vote to hamstring.
That determination to silence younger Americans is playing out today in Tennessee, where a school shooting on March 28 in Nashville killed six people, including three 9-year-olds. The shooting has prompted protesters to demand that the legislature honor the will of the people by addressing gun safety, but instead, Republicans in the legislature have moved to expel three Democratic lawmakers who approached the podium without being recognized to speak—a breach of House rules—and led protesters in chants calling for gun reform. As Republicans decried the breach by Representatives Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson, protestors in the galleries called out, “Fascists!”
Republican efforts to gain control did not end there. On Twitter today, Johnson noted that she had “just had a visit from the head of HR and the House ethics lawyer,” who told her “that if I am expelled, I will lose my health benefits,” but the ethics lawyer went on to explain “that in one case, a member who was potentially up for expulsion decided to resign because if you resign, you maintain your health benefits.”
The echoes of Reconstruction in that conversation are deafening. In that era, when the positions of the parties were reversed, southern Democrats used similar “persuasion” to chase Republican legislators out of office. When that didn’t work, of course, they also threatened the physical safety of those who stood in the way of their absolute control of politics.
On Saturday night, someone fired shots into the home of the man who founded and runs the Tennessee Holler, a progressive news site. Justin Kanew was covering the gun safety struggle in Tennessee. He wrote: “This violence has no place in a civilized society and we are thankful no one was physically hurt. The authorities have not completed their investigation and right now we do not know for sure the reason for this attack. We urge the Williamson County Sheriff’s office to continue to investigate this crime and help shed light on Saturday’s unfortunate events and bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice. In the meantime, our family remains focused on keeping our children healthy and safe.”
The anger coming from losing candidate Kelly last night, and his warning that “this does not end well….[a]nd I wish Wisconsin the best of luck because I think it’s going to need it,” sure sounded like those lawmakers in the Reconstruction years who were convinced that only people like them should govern. The goal of voter suppression, control of statehouses, and violence—then and now—is minority rule.
Today’s Republican Party has fallen under the sway of MAGA Republicans who advocate Christian nationalism despite its general unpopularity; on April 3, Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, who has destroyed true democracy in favor of “Christian democracy” in his own country, cheered Trump on and told him to “keep on fighting.” Like Orbán, today’s Republicans reject the principles that underpin democracy, including the ideas of equality before the law and separation of church and state, and instead want to impose Christian rule on the American majority.
Their conviction that American “tradition” focuses on patriarchy rather than equality is a dramatic rewriting of our history, and it has led to recent attacks on LGBTQ Americans. In Kansas today, the legislature overrode Democratic governor Laura Kelly’s veto of a bill banning transgender athletes who were assigned male at birth from participating in women’s sports. Kansas is the twentieth state to enact such a policy, and when it goes into effect, it will affect just one youth in the state.
Yesterday, Idaho governor Brad Little signed a law banning gender-affirming care for people under 18, and today Indiana governor Eric Holcomb did the same.
Meanwhile, Republican-dominated states are so determined to ignore the majority they are also trying to make it harder for voters to challenge state laws through ballot initiatives. Alice MIranda Ollstein and Megan Messerly of Politico recently wrote about how, after voters in a number of states overrode abortion bans through ballot initiatives, legislatures in Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, and Oklahoma are now debating ways to make it harder for voters to get measures on the ballot, sometimes even specifying that abortion-related measures are not eligible for ballot challenges.
And yet, in the face of the open attempt of a minority to seize control, replacing our democracy with Christian nationalism, the majority is reasserting its power. In Michigan, after an independent redistricting commission redrew maps to end the same sort of gerrymandering that is currently in place in Wisconsin and Tennessee, Democrats in 2022 won a slim majority to control the state government. And today, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a bill revoking a 1931 law that criminalized abortion without exception for rape or incest.