Wisconsin Republicans Are Reminding Us Once Again That They Really, Really Hate Democracy

The Wisconsin GOP is at it again. With the party's stranglehold on the State Supreme Court in peril following a judicial election last spring, Republicans are now seeking to impeach the new judge before the court can throw out the state’s rigged election maps.

Janet Protasiewicz at her swearing in ceremony for her position as a State Supreme Court Justice in Madison, Wisconsin, on August 1, 2023. (Sara Stathas for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Few elections in recent US history have arguably been as consequential as the Wisconsin gubernatorial contest of 2010. Following Scott Walker’s election, the state — once a laboratory of social democracy and progressive reform — was quickly transformed into an oligarch-funded experiment in reaction and anti-majoritarian rule.

Despite the resistance of many Wisconsinites, Walker spent the next eight years running roughshod over the state’s storied progressive heritage: surviving a recall and passing a suite of right-wing initiatives that included tax cuts, a right-to-work law, newly draconian welfare rules, the expansion of school vouchers, relaxed gun laws, and restrictive voter ID rules making it harder to vote. To consolidate their hold on power, Republicans also redrew the state’s electoral maps to create what the Princeton Gerrymandering Project has deemed among the “most extreme partisan gerrymanders” anywhere in the United States.

“No matter how much Wisconsin voters might want to elect a Democratic Legislature,” as the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie recently put it, “the Republican gerrymander won’t allow them to.” The state’s 2012 legislative elections, for example, saw Republicans secure 46 percent of the vote but win 60 percent of the seats. In 2018, when Walker was finally ousted by Democrat Tony Evers, Republicans again won an Assembly supermajority despite losing the popular vote by a full eight percentage points and losing elections for every single statewide office.

Essentially, the state’s conservatives have created electoral maps so outrageously skewed in their favor that minority rule is practically guaranteed as long as they are maintained. Despite Evers’s victories in 2018 and 2022, right-wing control of the state’s elected supreme court has kept the gerrymandered boundaries in place — and with them the GOP’s unearned ability to preserve Walker era laws and thwart the will of voters.

Last April, however, a ray of hope appeared in the election of Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Janet Protasiewicz, who secured a convincing eleven point victory in what was, to date, the most expensive contest of its kind in US history. Protasiewicz’s win, which at last flipped control of the court away from conservatives, has the potential to dramatically turn the tide of Wisconsin politics: threatening the right’s efforts to undermine workers’ rights, reproductive justice, and to keep restrictive voter ID laws in place.

Just as profoundly, it was widely seen as a proverbial nail in the coffin when it came to the state’s absurdly unfair election boundaries — a fact Protasiewicz was extremely candid about in the lead-up to April 4’s vote. During the campaign, she openly (and fairly) described the existing map as “rigged,” adding, “I can’t tell you what I would do on a particular case, but I can tell you my values . . . the maps are wrong” and later pledging to take “a fresh look at the gerrymandering question.” Protasiewicz’s swearing in only took place on August 1, but it was less than two weeks before Republican lawmakers began to talk openly of her potential impeachment.

Their pretext? That Protasiewicz hasn’t been sufficiently guarded in expressing her views about Wisconsin’s gerrymandered electoral map. As Dan Kaufman explains in his latest report for the New Yorker, the conservative strategy going forward may be even more Machiavellian than it appears:

If Protasiewicz is impeached, she would be barred from performing her duties while awaiting the trial. Some political observers have suggested that the Senate may delay holding one, which would leave Protasiewicz powerless and the court ideologically deadlocked. Others have suggested that Republicans may try to convict her by December 1st; Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, could appoint a replacement — who would serve only until the next judicial election, which is in April, on the same date as the state’s Republican Presidential primary. (If Protasiewicz is convicted after December 1st, a replacement would serve until 2031.)

In other words: Republicans plan to use every institutional trick and loophole at their disposal to strip a justice freshly elected by a wide margin of her power before she has even heard her first case — on the pretext, no less, that she has an established bias in favor of non-gerrymandered election boundaries and majority rule. Her suspension would mean not only a 3-3 deadlock on the court, but also a likely conservative minority stranglehold on the state’s government in perpetuity.

Even by Republican standards, the whole effort is astonishingly brazen in its indifference to democracy. Since Walker’s victory thirteen years ago, Wisconsin Republicans have waged an all-out war against popular government in their state and, even after losing the governorship twice and a critical judicial race by a whopping eleven points, remain hell-bent on maintaining minority rule.

Among other things, it’s a useful reminder that the conservative hostility toward democratic institutions did not suddenly begin in 2016 when Donald Trump became the party’s de facto standard bearer — and is certain to continue even if he’s defeated again in 2024.