Republicans in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina seem intent on subverting the will of the voters.
The Wisconsin Assembly speaker, Robin Vos, a Republican, said the quiet part out loud this week when he told reporters that it was a blatant power grab for his lame duck chamber to pass legislation that weakens the incoming Democratic governor, Tony Evers.
“We did have an election,” Mr. Vos said on Tuesday. “Whether everyone here likes it or not, I respect the fact that Tony Evers is the governor and he’s going to be starting on Jan. 7. But he’s not the governor today, and that’s why we’re going to make sure the powers of each branch are as equal as they can be.”
Mr. Evers, that “very liberal governor,” won the election with 29,227 more votes than the incumbent, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, so more Wisconsinites seem to believe in his policies than in those of the departing governor. Mr. Evers, the state schools superintendent, ran on an agenda that included increased school spending, a middle-class tax cut and a more humane stance on undocumented immigrants.
The package of bills now sitting on Mr. Walker’s desk would require the new governor to get the Legislature’s permission to ban guns in the Capitol, adjust benefits programs or withdraw the state from a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. The Legislature will also now appoint the majority of the members to the state’s powerful economic development board. Mr. Walker should veto the package for the good of his state.
Meanwhile, another power play is unfolding in Michigan, where a lame duck Republican Legislature is also scheming to strip the incoming Democrats of various powers of their offices. Under the measures, oversight of campaign finance rules would shift from the secretary of state’s office to a special commission. Another bill would allow the Legislature to intervene in lawsuits that involve the state, rather than leaving that authority to the incoming attorney general, a Democrat, Dana Nessel.
The chairwoman of the Democratic Governors Association, Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, called the mischief in the Midwest “a dangerous assault on our democracy.”
Are these political shenanigans norm shattering? Absolutely. They’re obnoxious and cynical, too. And it is regrettable that one political party in particular is so insecure about the merits of its ideas — and the concept of representative democracy — that it feels the need to push a political system under strain even further toward extremism.
Are the moves illegal? That’s for the courts to decide. In 2016, Republicans in North Carolina passed measures to weaken the incoming Democratic governor. Some were struck down by the courts; others are still being litigated. Democrats in Wisconsin have threatened to sue over some of the bills the Republicans jammed through this week.
Is all this unprecedented? Sadly, not. Lame duck and 11th-hour power plays of all sorts by both parties are common in American politics at all levels, though they usually are not as bald as what we’re seeing in Madison and Lansing. But American history is replete with examples of patronage, ballot box stuffing, corruption, legislative chicanery and disenfranchisement on a societal scale, and somehow the Republic has survived.
Speaking of disenfranchisement, to see something truly undemocratic, look at North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, where a Republican political operative is accused of mishandling mail-in ballots, in violation of state law. The results of the election have not been certified, and the election may have to be held a second time.
Up the road in Raleigh, the lame duck General Assembly has passed a new voter ID law before the party loses its supermajority in the next session.
Part of what makes the moves in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina unusual is that all three states can have lame duck sessions of their legislatures in the first place. Most state legislatures don’t meet throughout the year and so don’t have the chance to thwart the will of voters after an election. If they did, this sort of thing might be more common.
It’s easy to lose faith in American democracy when the two major political parties have gerrymandered themselves into impregnable bunkers and bathe in rivers of campaign cash. Most depressing of all is the nationwide effort to erect barriers to voting, orchestrated by the party of Lincoln.
But keep the faith. This is what democracy looks like. Messy. Unfair. Imperfect.
The country insulates itself from the worst of the glitches in the system by establishing norms, rules of the road that everyone tacitly agrees to follow, especially around the orderly transfer of power. There are also laws, and regular remedies at the ballot box.
Those norms exist not only to protect the political parties from each other but also to protect them from their own self-destructive impulses.
After all, another election is always around the corner. And, as the Republican Party may learn, short-term gains often lead to long-term losses.