Why Voting Is Important

November 4, 2019

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

(This is the text of the talk that Matt gave on Nov. 2, 2019, sponsored by AAUW-WI.)

Good morning, thanks for that nice introduction, and thanks, Stephanie, for inviting me here.

I’m a morning person so it’s nice to be able to speak to you while I’m clear-headed. Usually, I’ve got to fend off the evening fog with three cups of coffee when I give talks so this is a nice change for me.

The topic I was given was, “Why Voting is Important Especially When It Doesn’t Seem to Make a Difference.”

And naturally being counter-suggestive, I’m going to quarrel with that description of my assignment, since if we’ve learned anything over the last 10 years in Wisconsin, it’s that voting makes a huge difference, and if we’ve learned anything over the last 3 years in this country, it’s that voting makes a huge difference.

Think how different our state would be if Scott Walker hadn’t defeated Tom Barrett the first time.

Or how different our state would be if Walker lost the recall.

Or how different our country would be if Hillary Clinton, who could do the job of president in her sleep, had beaten Donald Trump.

But instead we got this clinical narcissist. But that’s not the worst thing about him. The worst thing about him is that he’s the closest thing we’ve ever had to a fascist in the White House. He traffics in racism and ultranationalism, which are the sperm and the egg of fascism, and he’s doing some in vitro fertilization right there in the Oval Office.

And Trump, as we saw in Charlottesville and all across the country, has given a permission slip to every white supremacist to be just as racist and sexist and homophobic and anti-Semitic in public as they ever dreamed of being.

Or, for that matter, how different the U.S. Senate would be if Russ Feingold had defeated Ron Johnson, who is making a bad joke of himself on the national stage, entangled as he is in this Ukraine scandal.

So voting does matter.

But while I was not in your committee meeting when you cooked up my assignment, I can imagine where you were coming from.

Because in some ways, it does feel like voting doesn’t matter.

Here in Wisconsin, it feels that way because of the grotesque gerrymandering in 2011, where Republican leaders, with the help of an Oklahoma political scientist and using the demographic data of past voting patterns in individual Wisconsin districts, cleverly moved lines on a map to redraw districts in such a way as to give Republicans more seats in the Assembly and the Senate.

GerrymanderRedrawing the maps is the people’s business, but they didn’t do the people’s business in the People’s House. Instead, they went across the street from the Capitol and holed up in the cushy law offices of Michael Best & Friedrich, in a room that became known as “The Map Room.” It was a locked room. Two young staffers to the Speaker held the keys to the Map Room. The public wasn’t allowed in. The media wasn’t allowed in. Democrats weren’t allowed in. And even Republican legislators who weren’t in leadership weren’t allowed into the Map Room unless they got permission from those young staffers. And once they were allowed in, these lowly legislators were allowed to look at only their own redrawn districts. And before they could leave the Map Room, they had to sign an oath of secrecy.

That’s not how the people’s business should be carried out.

But that’s what they did, and just as they had predicted, Republicans were able to solidify their hold on power by virtue of these new maps.

For instance, with the old maps in 2010, Republicans won about 250,000 more Assembly votes than Democrats statewide, and they won 60 out of the 99 seats in the State Assembly. Then in 2012, Democrats won about 170,000 more Assembly votes statewide than the Republicans – a swing of about 420,000 votes for the Democrats. But under the newly rigged maps, Republicans still won 60 out of the 99 seats.

Or look what happened a year ago. Democrats received 54 percent of the votes in Assembly districts statewide, but Republicans held on to 63 percent of the seats!

That’s some good rigging if you can get away with it, and they got away with it!

As a result of gerrymandering, your vote for your Assembly Representative in the general election in most districts in Wisconsin doesn’t usually matter because the districts are so rigged. The only Assembly election that seems to matter is the one in the primary for the dominant political party in that district. Because the winner of that primary is extremely likely to win the general.

But it’s not guaranteed! There still can be wave elections that sweep people out, even in the most gerrymandered districts. And if we have a high turnout, anything is possible.

Look at Patty Schachtner. She won Sheila Harsdorf’s seat in the State Senate by 11 points, even though Harsdorf, who stepped down, had won her last race by 26 percentage points, and Trump beat Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by 17 points in that district.

But let’s go back and forth again.

Another reason voting doesn’t seem to matter in Wisconsin is because the majority in power refuses to do what the people want.

This is a real problem for our democracy.

The most recent example of this, of course, is gun control. Gov. Evers has called a special session to get universal background checks and to get a red flag on the books, both of which have about 80% public support. But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says the Senate isn’t even going to hold a hearing on them and is going just gavel the session over as soon as it meets.

And it’s not just this issue.

Expanding Medicaid has 80% support, but that’s not happening.

83% favor legalizing medical marijuana, and 59% favor legalizing recreational marijuana, but that’s not happening.

Actually, banning gerrymandering has 72% support, including 63% from Republicans and 76% from Independents, but that’s not happening, either.

What’s more, many of our elected officials aren’t listening to their constituents when they communicate directly with them. 3 Monkeys

The great citizen activist and guerrilla journalist Sheila Plotkin has a website called we-the-irrelevant.org.

She got records from every legislator (she had to sue some of them before they would respond) to find out how many contacts they received about the lame-duck session and what the breakdown was of those contact.

Here’s what she found: “The grand total of contacts received by all legislators on this issue was 46,766! 98% were opposed! A sizeable minority of those were self-declared Republicans, Conservatives, or Independents.”

And here’s what she said about this: “Under what definition of "representative" do legislators ignore 98% of those who took the trouble to make contact regarding a significant issue?  Why do they feel free to act regardless of such enormous opposition? How have we reached this point in Wisconsin?”

Well, we’ve reached this point because of gerrymandering.

And we’ve reached this point because legislative leaders they view their donors as their constituents, and not the actual citizens in their districts.

But you can take Sheila Plotkin’s example too far. Because sometimes, bombarding our elected officials does make a difference.

Here’s an example. Speaker Robin Vos tried to exempt legislators and their staffs from the open-records law in a piece of legislation he floated on the Friday before the July 4 th weekend in 2015. The reaction to this self-serving idea was intense. Citizens from all across the state deluged Vos’s office with harsh criticism. Editorialists condemned him in one voice. Vos and his fellow Republicans must have almost been hit by tomatoes at the July 4 th parades because when they returned to Madison early the next week, they dropped this idea.

Which proves you just never can tell when you’re going to have an impact.

Activism, like voting, can make a difference even when it doesn’t seem like it.

But let’s go back and forth once more.

Another reason people feel their votes don’t count is because our campaign finance laws give the super rich and the corporations much more say than regular folks have.

Greased PalmsAs Jimmy Carter said a couple years ago, “We no longer have a democracy in our country. We’ve got an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.”

And thanks to a rewrite of our campaign finance law that the GOP pushed through in 2015 here in Wisconsin, the opportunity for political bribery has gone through the roof. This disastrous rewrite doubled the amount that rich people can give to candidates, and said that corporations for the first time in more than 100 years can donate to political parties and legislative campaign committees controlled by the leaders of the Assembly and the Senate. And it also tore down the ceiling on donations to political parties, so now the sky is the limit.

So now, rich and poor alike can write checks for $20,000 to their favorite candidate for governor and checks for $2 million or more to their favorite political party.

No wonder people without big bank accounts think they don’t have an equal say. They don’t!

You know, there’s an expression among rich political donors in Wisconsin that’s now extinct. That expression is, “I’ve maxed out.” Wealthy folks that I know actually were very fond of this expression because it meant that once they’d spent the $10,000 on any political candidate or party, they couldn’t spend another dime, so that whenever anyone would approach them after they’d hit that ceiling, they had an easy out and could say, “You know, I’d love to help you but I’ve maxed out.”

Well, it’s impossible to max out anymore in Wisconsin.

But let me wrestle again with the question you asked me to address, and let me bow back in your direction.

Because there are huge, underlying problems with our democracy that don’t seem to get addressed no matter who’s elected, and that’ll be here long past Trump:

One underlying problem is the problem of money in politics, which I’ve already mentioned. You and I and everyone in this room do not have the same power to choose who gets elected and what laws are passed and what policies are pursued as the giant contributors, like the Charles Koch or Sheldon Adelson or Richard Uihlein or Diane Hendricks -- or George Soros and Tom Steyer, for that matter.

So, you might say, there are billionaires on the left and right so it balances out. It usually doesn’t balance out, for one thing, because the big donors on the right tend to spend more than the big donors on the left. But even if it did, our democracy isn’t supposed to be a tug of war between a couple of billionaires on the right and a couple of billionaires on the left. We’re not supposed to be reduced to mere spectators in our democracy; we’re all supposed to have an equal tug on the rope.

Another problem is the crisis of journalism and the media in America. Newspapers are dying out. I was over in Marshfield for a press conference recently, and I couldn’t get anyone from the Marshfield paper to show up. I was told that there really isn’t a Marshfield newspaper anymore. It’s just a shell. It’s owned by USA Today, and it runs the news from Wausau. That’s a real problem. Plus, there are fewer and fewer places for real debate and civil political discussion. We’re in separate camps; we might as well be in different universes.

Yet another underlying problem is our grossly unequal economy. The top 1 percent hoards 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and gobbles up a huge chunk of its income. And billionaires are now paying a smaller percentage of their taxes than everybody else for the first time in our history. This is grossly unfair. It’s bad for the economy. It makes a mockery of equality of opportunity. And it’s bad for democracy, too. When the economy overwhelmingly rewards the rich, they get even more say over who gets elected and what laws are passed and what policies are pursued. We become less and less of a democracy and more and more an oligarchy or plutocracy. Ultimately, capitalism devours democracy, and it’s munching away at it right now.

A final underlying problem is the culture of racism that rips apart the fundamental concept that we are all created equal and that we all have equal rights and an equal say. The election of President Obama gave a lot of people the false hope that we were moving beyond this deeply rooted problem, but it has come back with a vengeance with the brazen white supremacist movement that Trump breast-feeds.

No single vote is going to wipe away all these deep-seated problems.

But that doesn’t mean that voting has no impact whatsoever.

And if voting weren’t important, there wouldn’t be such a comprehensive effort under way to make it harder for people to vote in this country.

Paul Weyrich, one of the leaders of the social conservative movement, told a gathering of the religious right in 1980: “I don’t want everybody to vote…Our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting population goes down.”

So they would use negative advertising and other techniques to dampen voter enthusiasm, and they would close voting booths so there would be long lines in predominantly African American areas.

But they really didn’t get a big boost until the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Shelby County case of 2013, did away with part of the Voting Rights Act that had compelled many Southern states to get approval from the Justice Department before they could make any changes to their voting laws.

This led to an avalanche of new voter suppression laws and tactics, which we saw materialize in grotesque form in Georgia and in North Carolina last year.

Since then, Florida passed essentially a poll tax, saying former felons have to pay all their court costs before they can vote—this after a historic referendum allowing the reenfranchisement of 1.4 million former felons.

And Tennessee passed a law making it a felony to register new voters improperly. So if you’re in the League of Women Voters of Tennessee and you make a mistake registering someone, you could go to jail!

Voter SuppressionSince 2010, voter suppression laws have been introduced not only across the Deep South but all across the country, with 25 states passing bills that made it harder to vote since 2010.

One of those states is Wisconsin.

Scott Walker and the GOP-Legislature passed their so-called Voter ID law in 2011, as you’ll remember.

When it passed, Republican State Senators were described by the chief of staff of one Republican Senator as being “giddy” that they were making it harder for minorities and young people to vote.

The Voter ID law requires people to show a government-issued ID with your photo on it when you go to the voting booth. It also limited early voting, which a federal judge in Madison struck down as being blatantly discriminatory.

And then in the ersial lame-duck session, Vos and Fitzgerald tried again to limit early voting, and the same judge, Judge Peterson, struck it down for the same reason.

The problem with Voter ID is that many young people, people of color, and elderly people don’t have drivers’ licenses, the most common form of permissible IDs.

Going to the DMV to get an ID is not as easy as it seems if you’re in a nursing home or disabled or don’t have a vehicle. And finding a DMV that’s open can be tricky. For instance, if you lived in Sauk City last year, the DMV was open only on the fifth Wednesday of every month, and there were only four months that had a fifth Wednesday!

The Voter ID law has had its desired effect: Both Representative Glenn Grothman and the unlamented Brad Schimel, the former Attorney General of Wisconsin, said in public that this law helped or was going to help Republicans win elections in Wisconsin. In fact, it may have been a big reason that Trump carried Wisconsin, because thousands of voters may have been turned away at the polls or discouraged from voting by the Voter ID law.

Let’s be clear: Voter Suppression is un-democratic small d, and un-American, capital A. Every citizen has the right to vote. That right shouldn’t be impeded. Voting should be made easier, not harder.

You know, the art of politics should consist of two things: getting your people out, and convincing a fraction of those who don’t already agree with you that your view of what is good and right and moral and American is the best way to go.

It shouldn’t be about getting fewer people to vote. It shouldn’t be about forcing voters who disagree with you to run an obstacle course on the way to the voting booth.

But that’s how it’s been over the last few years here in America, and these sleazy tactics echo a shameful and a racist past.

At our founding, remember, only white male property owners could vote.

One of our Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris of New York, who wrote the lofty words of the Preamble to our Constitution, elsewhere wasn’t so lofty. He railed against what he called “the mob,” and referred to working people as “reptiles.” People who don’t own property “don’t deserve” to vote, Morris said.

The expansion of the suffrage to white working men occurred state by state. Ben Franklin led the way in Pennsylvania.

Here was the classic case that clever Old Ben made, by way of this example:

“Today a man owns a jackass worth $50 and he is entitled to vote, but before the next election, the jackass dies. The man in the meantime has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive…But the jackass is dead. Now, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man, or in the jackass?”

Gradually, more and more states agreed that the right to vote resided in the man, not the jackass.

The white man, anyway.

Black Voters After Civil WarThe battle to gain the vote for African American men was not an easy one.

Frederick Douglass and the Abolitionists championed it.

But racist Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina warned that it would allow former slaves to gain “political and social equality with their former owners.” Heaven forbid!

Yet the Civil War itself, where one in ten Union soldiers were black, made a compelling argument for granting blacks the right to vote. This was not lost on General William Tecumseh Sherman, who said:

“When the fight is over, the hand that drops the musket cannot be denied the ballot.”

The Fifteenth Amendment passed in 1870. It states, as you know:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The battle to gain the vote for women wasn’t a short or easy one, either -- and I don’t need to tell you.

But here are two quotes you might not be familiar with.

During the Fight for Independence, Abigail Adams wrote her husband, John:

Women's Suffrage Movement“Remember the ladies…If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have not voice, or representation.”

Then there was Jane Addams, writing in 1912, put it pithily when she gave a speech entitled “If Things Were Reversed,” which was excerpted in La Follette’s Weekly. She and Belle Case La Follette were very good friends, by the way. Jane Addams flipped the script. She asked how men would react if they were denied the right to vote and had to listen to the same belittling rationales for this denial that women were hearing over and over again. She parroted those rationales, one after another:

“First, men would find politics corrupting” if they voted, so men shouldn’t have the right to vote.

“Second, they would vote as their wives and mothers did,” so men shouldn’t have the right to vote.

“Third, men’s suffrage would only double the vote without changing the results,” so men shouldn’t have the right to vote.

“Fourth, men’s suffrage would diminish the respect for men.”

“Fifth, most men don’t want to vote,” so men shouldn’t have the right to vote

“Sixth, the best men won’t vote,” so men shouldn’t have the right to vote

We Wisconsinites can be proud because we were the first state to ratify the 19th amendment. That was back in June 1919, 100 years ago. Fourteen months later, it became part of the U.S. Constitution.

But even as the suffrage was expanding, a powerful and ugly backlash was under way.

In the Jim Crow South, as you probably know, whites used steep poll taxes and ridiculously obscure literacy tests to deny black citizens the right to vote.

And they used intimidation and violence, including lynchings, to deter black people from voting.

And then they rewrote their state constitutions, around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to criminalize a whole variety of actions, and then stripped convicts of the right to vote. This was all very intentional.

Take Alabama:

The president of the state’s 1901 constitutional convention, John Knox, said the goal of the convention was “to establish white supremacy in this State…We must establish it by law--not by force or fraud.”

So that’s the history of voter suppression in America.

It’s a history we need to defy.

And I don’t try to guilt trip people into voting.

I use a different argument.

I just urge them to enjoy flexing their muscles.

Because Election Day is the one day when every citizen has as much power as the next. That moment when you’re in the voting booth, you have as much power as Diane Hendricks or Tom Steyer, Richard Uihlein or George Soros.

So let’s show them who’s boss.

No matter how grossly gerrymandered Wisconsin is, let’s get as many people as possible to turn out and vote.

No matter how disgraceful the Voter ID Law is, let’s register the unregistered, engage the disengaged and enchant the disenchanted.

As Fighting Bob La Follette said, 100 years ago, “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

Let’s take the cure!