In the recall elections last night, Wisconsin Democrats came one seat short of their goal of taking the state senate from Republicans. As the night dragged on, it looked like a real possibility, but in the last hour or so, deja vu set in -- everyone was waiting for result from Waukesha County and that county's clerk, Kathy Nikolaus. At that point, the Democrat Sandy Pasch was in the lead -- by better than ten points -- and then a conservative county's results came in and turned it all around. It looked bad, given Nikolaus's recent history. The leader of the state Democratic Party issued an angry statement accusing the clerk of vote tampering, but later walked that back.
I've encapsulated that moment in history for a reason. Republicans argue that their new voter ID law, which wasn't in full effect in last night's elections, is necessary in "protecting the integrity of elections in Wisconsin." If people aren't sure that some voters are actually legally entitled to vote, then the people won't have faith in their elected officials, because they won't be sure those officials were lawfully elected. Never mind that not once in Wisconsin history has a wave of illegal voters thrown an election. Not even close.
Still, Wisconsinites have good reason to doubt the legitimacy of their elections. As Kathy Nikolaus demonstrates so well, the sheer incompetence of one county clerk can throw an election into question. Today, there are no shortage of people who believe that incumbent Alberta Darling didn't win that race and, rightly or wrongly, question the legitimacy of that election. And in all that questioning, you won't hear the words "voter fraud" once. The worry is vote tampering. And more.
In the runup to these elections, several groups sent out mailers urging voters to get their absentee ballots in by August 11 -- a date past the deadline. And, just to make sure those absentee ballots wouldn't be counted, they listed an incorrect address. The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, Inc., and Wisconsin Family Action all sent out similar mailers and all had identical misinformation; an apparently coordinated effort at voter suppression through lies in several Wisconsin districts. Once again, the integrity of these elections are in question and -- once again -- absolutely no one believes the problem was with the voters.
Even Gov. Walker himself has a shady electoral record, with several of his donors accused of violating campaign finance laws. Most cases involve what amounts to money-laundering to exceed the limit on individual contributions. Many people now lack faith even in the governor's legitimacy -- and none of those people doubt him because of illegal voting.
Needless to say, the voter ID bill does nothing to restore anyone's faith in Wisconsin elections. The problem is a system that allows abuse and lacks transparency. Showing an ID at the polls does absolutely nothing to address that and it's not meant to -- it's meant to provide a beard for voter suppression and to create the appearance of election reform, while doing almost less than nothing to address the real problems. And why doesn't it address those real problems? Why, because those problems advantage Republicans.
Last night, Republicans lost two seats in recall elections. So far, Democrats have lost none. Republicans are taking that as a win, because they didn't lose control of the state senate. But this is like celebrating the fact that only two-thirds of your house burned down. It was not a good night for them. Spinning this as victory is setting the bar extremely low.
"Dems would be silly not proceed with Walker recall based on tonight," commented elections whiz Nate Silver. "The results project to a toss-up if you extrapolate out statewide." This is by no means finished.
But if Walker wins his own recall fight, will Wisconsinites have faith in the results of that election? I doubt it. We'll see the same illegal dirty tricks and the same Peter Principle incompetence from election officials and the same campaign finance abuses.
If Wisconsinites have no faith in elections, you can't blame the voters. You have to blame Republicans. And until violations of campaign finance laws and illegal voter suppression tactics come with actual prison sentences -- not fines that are simply written off as overhead by corporations with deep pockets -- that lack of faith will always be there.
The problem isn't voters, the problem is Republicans.