In Wisconsin, the Republican-dominated state legislature -- GOP Gov. Scott Walker waiting in the wings with his overheated signing pen -- is about to move once again to grab more control over how all elections in the state are run, in a way that just ever-so coincidentally happens to benefit their party's candidates.
The latest in a continuing series of GOP attempts to tweak Badger voting and election laws at the expense of the political opposition comes to us from perhaps the zaniest among Wisconsin's right-wing lawmakers. State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) is sponsoring a bill that, like most GOP bills in the state these days, is being fast-tracked through the legislative process like a German Army blitzkrieg. Heck, under current GOP rule, some bills are so important they don't even require legitimate public hearings before passage.
Evidently, true democracy simply requires too much time and effort. Besides, there's that distasteful hint of the hated word "Democratic" in "democracy." Thus, wherever possible, Republican lawmakers now cut out the middlemen -- the public, reasoned discourse and compromise -- and simply meet informally down at the pub to decide matters beforehand. Pub, public, Republican: It's all of a piece.
Grothman's bill -- which passed the state Senate yesterday by one vote and which almost certainly will be approved by the even more rabid GOP majority in the state Assembly -- would impose a statewide limit on hours for early absentee voting. Democrats and independent voting-rights advocates say the measure is intended to hinder turnout for lower-income, Democratic-leaning voters; in, for example, the way the state GOP secretly reshaped legislative districts after the 2010 census so that Democrats collected tens of thousands more votes statewide and yet still wound up a weak minority in legislative seats. Dis-representative government is so-o-o efficient.
For his part, Grothman claims the voting hours bill merely "levels the playing field" because, unlike Wisconsin cities which tend to be Democratic-leaning, rural election officials can't afford to maintain longer voting hours. Just wouldn't be fair, you see, to let local elections officials do their legal best to allow as many citizens as possible a chance to cast their ballots.
UPDATE: The bill as passed by the state Senate would limit early voting statewide to county clerk's offices. There's one such office per county, so that requirement seems patently unfair. For example, mostly rural Ashland County has 16,000 residents in all. The City of Milwaukee alone has 600,000 residents and Milwaukee County has 900,000. Which place will, you think, have shorter early balloting lines as a result of this "level playing field" law?
Grothman and his fellow Repubs simply aren't concerned with whether urban voters are stuck in long lines or, because of transportation problems or work conflicts, can't easily get to the polls during many hours of the week. Nor does it matter to Republicans that these factors are not problems in low-population areas of the state. Because: One size fits all. Except: It really doesn't.
Follow me below the little orange cloud of back-room cigar smoke for further elucidation.
Several decades ago I was a communications specialist working for the University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee, an urban university with a different mission than any other campus in the UW System. UWM had a decent journalism program but wanted to specialize in urban journalism -- the kind of complex, in-depth reporting that tends to be necessary in larger population centers that are more diverse in most respects.
So, UWM went to the state Capitol and sought funding and approval to create a School of Urban Journalism. You wouldn't believe how quickly lawmakers of that era blew off the request. One critic summed up the negative reaction: "What the hell is urban journalism?"
I promptly sent a letter to news media pointing out that the UW -- Madison flagship campus, renowned for its agricultural programs, had for many years maintained a totally non-controversial School of Agricultural Journalism. No one had ever asked: "What the hell is that?" Indeed, agricultural journalism seemed a legitimate sub-category in mass communications. There were clearly specialized reporting needs for publications covering agriculture in a farm-rich state. Legislators -- many of them rural up-staters -- apparently had no problem understanding that. But the state was also very urban with a heavy emphasis on manufacturing. So, "urban journalism"? Why, that term must be made up! It's just a way for that pointy-headed urban school to suck up more resources from the good folks in all our little towns and hamlets!
And yet, year after year, in a continuing dance with cognitive dissonance, those legislators persisted in dissing those very qualities that made the state's urban centers noticeably different. So: On the one hand they decried any claim that urban areas were somehow different, but on the other hand, they were highly critical of many such differences, with urban centers usually coming out on the short end.
Today even more lawmakers practice that brand of crazy, paradoxical politics, and not just when it comes to elections. Of course, in the modern, tea-infested Republican Party, the biggest and sometimes only difference worthy of their attention is that Madison, Milwaukee, Racine, and other metropolitan regions are, to the GOP's way of thinking, entirely too Democratic in their politics and sometimes even (shudder!) progressive. And so, through one new law after another, Republicans seek to disarm and even punish urban centers for the crime of not bowing to the obvious brilliance of GOP ideology. On the order of: What the hell is light rail?! Who the hell needs a living wage?!
And so urban residents, who represent a sizable plurality of the entire state population, increasingly are treated to big-government "solutions" to local problems that the locals have for years managed reasonably well, and largely by themselves. Mass transit? Policing? Public education? Environmental quality? Urban planning? Collective bargaining? Local living- and minimum-wage laws? All, according to ultra-conservative and mostly rural Republicans, wrong-headed, defective public policies!
Never mind that many of these policies were instigated by, or met the approval of an earlier, more moderate GOP and that many of them have worked well up until now. Nope, no good, because these policies are not "fair." Well, neither is it fair to diss low-income parents as lazy because they allow their child to eat a federally subsidized school lunch. Neither is it fair to move jobs, but not transit options, from city centers to far-flung suburbs. Answer from GOP: cricket chirps.
Ironically, though they save their most irate commentary for the biggest cities, the Wisconsin GOP has been busy trying to disempower small-town Wisconsin, too. [ON EDIT: See an expansion of this discussion, relating specifically to voting, in the comments on this blog.] One among many examples: When townships along the Mississippi Valley began writing local laws to protect the environment against a rampage of new, largely unregulated frack-sand mining operations, the GOP flirted with a state law banning local oversight. And as far as the GOP is concerned, you're spit out of luck if you're a Lake Superior community concerned about the proposal to build a nearby, open-pit iron ore mine that would be among the biggest, deepest and most environmentally problematic in North America.
Thus the political party that traditionally has claimed local government was the most desirable is suddenly using its temporary control over state government to impose ill-fitting public policies upon municipalities, public school districts and other local government units all across Wisconsin.
As in Grothman's latest outing, the excuse for all such power-grabbing effrontery is to claim citizens and especially businesses need "regulatory certainty," and laws must be utterly uniform statewide in order to be fair. Which, of course, in other parts of the country is also why civil rights and affirmative action laws are, by modern GOP thinking, regarded as unfair. Because, hey, those laws treat some people differently. Never mind that an unjust society has for ages treated them differently in unkind, demeaning ways, and that the "solutions" claimed by GOP "fairness" laws only tend to worsen that ill-treatment. We're all just supposed to feel like this is the best of all possible worlds. You know, like our forefathers felt in the 1900s, the 1800s and earlier. Ah, the good old days!
Republicans cite vague needs for more "fairness" so often these days you'd think by now they would have voted to restore the federal Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting, so all points of view would have roughly equivalent access to the airwaves. Whoops. Actually, Republicans believe that allowing an equitable measure of diverse political discourse over the supposedly public airwaves would be unfair -- to really rich people. So, you see, policies are only "fair" if they keep people at the lower end of the economic ladder constrained. Money is speech and speech is power. So, says the GOP in effect, shut the frak up, because giving disadvantaged citizens access to more free speech and more equal opportunity is unfair to everyone higher up who is accustomed to buying everything they want, including politicians and votes.
In GOP-think, income redistribution is totally unfair, with the paradoxical exception of whenever a deregulated marketplace or tax policy (typically enabled by Republicans) redistributes income upwardly. That kind of redistribution is cool! Because, as House Budget Chair Paul Ryan might put it if he ever had a candid moment: When we make you rich, you deserve still more public dollars, but when we make you poor, you deserve still fewer public dollars, you lazy bastard. Now, we not only have the greenhouse effect that's driving climate change, we have the greenback effect that's driving regressive social policy.
Sen. "Fairness" Grothman earlier was responsible for a measure that tried to roll back living-wage laws enacted locally in Madison and Milwaukee. Because, he argued, when those cities use state tax dollars on public projects and contractors must pay higher minimum wages to bid for the work, other places in Wisconsin are forced to pay more. Actually, wrong, but Grothman persisted: Unfair! After all, don't we know that the cost of living in a big city is always identical to the costs of living in almost any other place, no matter how small or poor? Well, we don't know that, actually, because it isn't true.
Never mind, also, that Grothman and his pals have been taking more and more dollars away from Wisconsin's cities for other state-supported or even state-mandated programs, in the same way red states eat up federal dollars contributed mostly by blue states. You see, "fair" is what the GOP regards as fair -- no more nor less. Which perhaps explains the party's fairly hegemonistic pursuit of power.
Of course, the latest Wisconsin election "reform" scam and this trend in general are not unique to Wisconsin. Grothman's voting-hours restriction bill mirrors a year-earlier effort by Ohio Republicans to do much the same thing. And the Wisconsin GOP is busy trying to overcome court limits to impose Voter ID requirements, too.
Republicans nationwide have been very busy since 2010 trying to ensure that more and more people can't find a way to vote for the other guys. And so we have witnessed an endless stream of legally dubious schemes to cage and suppress non-GOP voting. Whether it's voter ID laws, absentee-ballot restrictions or legislative gerrymandering, the point is to make it harder -- much harder -- for Republican non-friendlies to vote, or at least vote meaningfully.
Many of these schemes have been contested in courts, which have served to retard the GOP's aims. Nevertheless, they have made incremental progress in some areas, and dramatic progress in others. Not, however, without laying waste to transparent government, rational public policy analysis, the English language itself, and, finally, just plain logic and common sense.
It's all rather like that old "Three Stooges" routine where Moe doles out supposedly equal work proceeds to both himself and Curly, dollar by dollar:
"Now, that's one for you and one for me; two for you and one-two for me; three for you and one-two-three for me... ."