Following a worrying trend of anti-democratic actions taken by Wisconsin’s Republican politicians, in November of 2021, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson called for a unilateral takeover of the state’s bipartisan Elections Commission (WEC) by the Republican-controlled State Legislature. Senator Johnson’s comments follow the release of a nonpartisan report on the results of Wisconsin’s 2020 election, which has found no widespread voter fraud or wrongdoing. Yet, Johnson and other Republicans continue to dispute the legitimacy of President Biden’s win in Wisconsin. Senator Johnson’s attack on the WEC, when taken in the context of Wisconsin Republicans’ consistent introduction of anti-democratic legislation and use of gerrymandering, shows stealth authoritarian tactics at work.
Senator Johnson’s comments come after previous required state audits, a partial recount, a nonpartisan election report and numerous lawsuits failed to uncover any evidence of widespread fraud or wrongdoing in the 2020 election. “We have a state agency for a reason,” said Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu: “to look at nomination signatures, to help candidates along the way, and to make sure clerks around the state know how to administer elections. I think the Legislature unilaterally taking over elections, I’m not sure how that would work.”
Senator Johnson claimed that Democratic Governor Tony Evers couldn’t stop a potential WEC takeover, citing the fact that there is “no mention of the governor” in the U.S. Constitution when it comes to running elections: “It says state legislatures, and… I would just say, ‘We’re reclaiming our authority. Don’t listen to WEC anymore. Their guidances are null and void.’” However, though the Constitution does leave control over the “times, places, and manner” of elections to the state legislature, there is no clear legal path for this to be accomplished. As the Elections Commission was created by state law, the normal legislative process for replacing it would still apply, so any proposed revision would have to pass the state legislature and be signed by the Governor. Senator Johnson’s intent to circumvent traditional checks and balances are intended to minimize bipartisan oversight in elections.
Though there is no clear legal path, Senator Johnson’s statements are still indicative of his intent to undermine the usual democratic process and grant further Republican control over Wisconsin’s elections. This is a clear example of stealth authoritarianism, which refers to government practices in a democracy that use legal means for anti-democratic ends, or the erosion of “partisan alternation,” which is the turnover of political power among more than one party. Johnson’s call to action aims to erode bipartisan mechanisms of accountability, weaken horizontal and vertical checks and balances, and allows the incumbents (state Republicans) to consolidate power — three key aspects of stealth authoritarianism. The goal is to make it significantly more difficult to unseat incumbents: in fact, “as a result of stealth authoritarian practices, partisan alternation might not occur even in the face of changing political preferences by the electorate.”
The results of these efforts can be seen in Wisconsin’s elections already, as Senator Johnson’s call for local officials to ignore the WEC is only the latest attempt by a Wisconsin Republican to undermine the democratic process. According to research done by Barry Burden, the Director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Wisconsin’s highly gerrymandered boundaries allowed Assembly Republicans to win 64 percent of the seats with only 46 percent of the vote in 2018. Additionally, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, there were eleven state voting bills introduced that contained restrictive proposals in 2021. Out of those eleven restrictive bills, ten were introduced by Republicans. Although Wisconsin is a purple state, partisan alternation has been significantly stifled by Republicans’ gerrymandering efforts, as well as significant restrictions on voting that primarily affect Democratic voters and districts.
Wisconsin Republicans claim that they are simply trying to improve future elections by introducing common sense legislation. While this may be their intention, these policies have the verifiable effect of consolidating power for their party at the expense of other parties, disenfranchising voters, and removing oversight and accountability for election proceedings. These seemingly legitimate and neutral tactics are frequently used by stealth authoritarians to insulate themselves from meaningful democratic challenges. Stealth authoritarianism uses formal legal and political mechanisms for anti-democratic purposes. While these actions are being taken in the name of democracy, by democratically elected representatives, it is clear that the effect of these actions is not democratic.