False Premises Presented as Top Issues in State Races
By Ray Mueller
The following is a guest post by a Wisconsin trade unionist. It is inspired by the article “What Lessons Can We Learn from Labor’s Defeats in Wisconsin in 2011 and 2015?” Readers are invited to post comments to this or any other article appearing on the Labor Fightback Blog.
Whew! It finally over, the election season, that is — the annoying, incessant TV political ads that we eventually could memorize, the desperate and frantic last-minute online political party appeals for contributions of as little as $3, and the partisan phone calls.
Now that the results are in, does that mean attention to the political process and election procedures is over for a while? Much as we’d like to think so, I’d suggest that it ought not to be.
Why, you might ask. My answer is that there’s lots of irresponsibility that’s permeated the election phenomenon. There’s plenty of blame to share.
Let’s start with the residents who make the ultimate decisions via the votes they cast (or do not cast). From Wisconsin’s population of approximately 5.742 million, the state’s Government Accountability Board (GAB), which is the agency that oversees the election process, indicates that the state has about 4.4 million persons who are eligible to vote.
To vote, however, persons need to register with the municipality in which they live. For that, they need to provide proof of their residence.
As of October 1 of this year (2014), the GAB reported that 3,385,151 of the state’s residents had registered to vote. This was an increase of 18,570 since June 1.
What those numbers don’t explicitly show, however, is that just over 1 million Wisconsin residents aren’t interested enough or haven’t made the effort to become registered voters. That’s nearly 25 percent of the potential electorate — a huge cadre of potential voters that political parties might want to think about capturing with their efforts and dollars.
Wall of Resistance
Based on what they have already done and what party leaders hope to do, Republicans in Wisconsin and elsewhere aren’t very interested in tapping the pool of unregistered potential voters. It seems they’re glued instead to the idea of limiting voter totals.
One indication is how leading Republican operatives and their supporters, though without any credible evidence, cling to the obsession that there is rampant “voter fraud” — a claim that does not pass a truth test.
A statement by no less an authority than Richard Posner, a conservative-leaning (Republican) 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judge appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, deserves credence. He has written that a documented case of voter fraud occurs once in every 14.6 million votes cast. He notes that it is 12 times more likely that a person would be struck by lightning than to impersonate another voter, thereby committing voter fraud.
Yet in Wisconsin, the obsessive mindset about the actuality or potentiality of “voter fraud” which prevails in the legislature, the governor’s office, and the state’s supreme court, still exists. Beyond that, new legislation has eliminated evening and weekend voting hours that some municipalities were offering to accommodate early voting during the two weeks before Election Day.
The state’s voter photo identification law, which is on temporary hold pending a possible ruling on its constitutionality by the Supreme Court of the United States, has a similar goal — reduce the number of voters on grounds of not having sufficient documentation on who they are.
Count to Five First
As another example of its intent to suppress voter numbers, the Wisconsin legislature earlier this year approved a bill establishing a limit on voting services provided to residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other similar group residential homes.
The new legislation stipulates that the facility must have a total of at least five voters registered in the municipality (most often a city) before the municipality is required to offer on-site absentee voting to those residents. On their own, the clerks in those municipalities could still decide to offer the absentee voting service by sending special voting deputies to the facility at an announced time.
As is the case in many of those situations, however, the residents were previously living in an electoral district other than the one that houses the facility into which they moved. In order to vote in their new electoral district, they would have to register as voters in the new municipality or district.
Obviously, residents at facilities which don’t meet the count of five test could still choose to vote but doing so would be more difficult. If confined to the facility, they could arrange to cast an absentee ballot either in their electoral district of their previous one, depending on how long they have lived at the new residence.
In effect, what Wisconsin’s new law says is “we don’t think it’s worth offering you a fairly easy chance to vote if there aren’t at least five of you at the facility who are eligible for the service.” With the number of facilities potentially affected by the new law, the number of disadvantaged voters greatly outnumbers even the claims about the cases of “voter fraud” — much less the actual fact of it.
Apparently not satisfied with what they have accomplished so far, the Republican leaders in Wisconsin’s legislature have announced they want to revamp the GAB during the next session of the legislature. They claim that the GAB, which oversees the election procedures in the state, has not been playing fair in the decisions it makes — a charge that is dubious.
Majority by Minority
Already, even without the ongoing efforts to suppress voter turnout, almost a quarter of Wisconsin’s residents, and an even higher ratio in many other states, who are eligible to vote have forfeited their right to have a real voice in their government. As one often cited statement indicates, “you got (or get) the government that you show up for.”
So, in Wisconsin, it often happens that far less than 25 percent of the persons who are eligible to vote and who are affected by the election results determine who holds the state-wide and other offices. That’s count number one in my tabulation of irresponsibility.
As if the formal efforts of officeholders and the lack of interest on the part of more than 1 million Wisconsin residents to take part in the political process aren’t enough, other efforts are periodically launched to limit the voting turnout. Those efforts, typically carried out in large municipalities, are aimed at the gullible and uniformed.
What often happens is that fliers which are circulated or signs which are posted give the wrong location for the local polling place, the wrong voting day, or the wrong voting hours. In some cases, those items tell potential voters that they are not eligible to vote if they face certain charges such as a driving violation.
This year, a robo-call operation giving instructions about a need to show a photo identification on Election Day was not shut down promptly after the court ruling which put that requirement on hold.
Election History Data
Official state statistics compiled by the GAB show that for the 2012 Presidential election Wisconsin had a turnout of nearly 3.1 million of the approximately 3.3 million registered voters. That’s an impressive percentage but not nearly so impressive when compared to the potential of 4.4 million voters.
In November 2010, however, only 2.2 million voters turned out in Wisconsin during what was not a Presidential election year. The difference of some 900,000 votes cast can largely be attributed to persons who tend to vote for Democrats. They are notorious for turning out for Presidential elections but not at other times.
That dramatic change in voter turnout in 2010 basically explains why Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson was able to oust incumbent Russ Feingold. The timing for when Wisconsin’s governors are elected — in non-Presidential election years — suggests that the state will have a long succession of Republicans as governors unless a significant number of the persons who vote only in Presidential election change their voting habits.
Mark that as count two on irresponsibility.
Hands Off by TV Stations
Let’s move on to the third count of irresponsibility. I assign that to the television stations who are happily and very profitably “hands on” for accepting the income from tens of thousands of political ads that are broadcast during election cycles but then are “hands off” when it comes to making any effort to point out the half-truths, misleading innuendos, misrepresentations, and patently false claims in those ads. They happy to be able to “wrap up” their election coverage during the 10 pm hour on Election Day.
Anyone subjected to the flood of TV ads is being asked to conclude that the opponent of the candidate sponsoring the ad is the most evil person ever to inhabit the Earth. It’s downright scary to think that such electioneering tactics have been approved by a candidate who will then be elected.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the Halloween season and the last week of the election campaign overlap. Maybe we could skip Halloween in election years because the political campaigning is scary enough.
Wisconsin holds a first place in several categories of human activity. It earned one more during this election season — an analysis by a national independent organization that the political ads broadcast here were the nastiest in the country. I hope that everyone who had a hand in creating those and who allowed them to fester is proud of making Wisconsin number one in another category.
But the tone and content of the ads was apparently not enough to provoke more potential voters to cast a ballot on November 4. The nastiness of our political ads seems to be regarded as business as usual.
False Premise of Governor’s Race
Wisconsin’s race for governor got stuck on the false and simplistic premise that a governor is mainly responsible for job retention and creation in the state. Credit the candidates with a zero on the relevance of their major campaign premise and with the fourth example of irresponsibility in the 2014 campaign.
What some newspapers and other observers tried to point out — without success to the candidates and their campaign advisers — is that the economy and job numbers are largely national and international phenomena. Yet our Wisconsin candidates for governor continued to pummel one another with all kinds of claims about jobs numbers and rankings among states.
Maybe they were trying to fool themselves — and the public — about how much influence a governor really has on the economy and employment numbers within a state’s borders. As I indicated earlier, the TV stations did little or nothing to question or examine the accuracy of the candidates’ counter-claims about job creation, certainly leaving anyone paying close attention to wonder what was true.
Another Faulty Premise
Similarly, the late developing attorney general’s contest devolved into a fist fight about which candidate was softer in prosecuting defendants who were charged with various types of crimes. This leads uninformed voters to believe that “the state’s top cop” is closely involved in cases that are actually handled by local prosecutors, judges, and juries.
According to Wisconsin’s Blue Book, the AG’s office is responsible for providing legal advice to the legislature and state agencies, representing the state in civil and criminal cases, and in handling criminal cases reaching the higher courts. Predictably, the TV stations did not lift a finger to point out that what the AG candidates were throwing mud at one another about had virtually nothing to do with the office they were seeking.
Shockingly, surveys of voters a few weeks before the Election Day indicated that 70 percent of the potential voters knew almost nothing about the major party candidates for Wisconsin attorney general. The same survey also revealed that 50 percent of the people could not even name the current attorney general although he had been in office for 8 years.
I suppose that’s not very surprising, given the fact that more people that part in voting for silly stuff like American Idol show contestants than who vote even in Presidential elections.
I would, however, credit the daily newspapers which circulate in this area with making more of an effort than in previous years to give attention and space this year than in the past in trying to inform readers about the views of the candidates for Congress and state offices.
Observations on Area Candidates
Despite those efforts, the voters in Wisconsin’s 9th senate district, which includes parts of Calumet County, saw fit not to support the excellent candidate — Martha Laning — fielded by the Democratic Party. That happened in this case because the 9th is an electoral district which has been drawn by Republicans to assure a fairly safe majority of voters who will support any Republican candidate in a general election.
Unfortunately, a great majority of voters are locked into voting for a candidate who bears a certain political stripe. They do not make much of an effort to examine the qualifications of a candidates. The political party label — one “good” and the other “bad” in their view — is sufficient reason for them to vote for someone.
In the 27th assembly district, which includes the city of Kiel, the Democratic candidate was Scott Heinig, who did not stage a very visible campaign — at least in this area.
Back in the early 1980s, Scott and I were among the volunteer adults at the mid-summer week-long camp outing for the Sheboygan Falls Campfire Girls council at Camp Bird in Marinette County.
During the camping week, Scott was the heart-throb of the early teen and pre-teen girls in the group. Obviously, his personal magnetism and very reasonable stance on numerous current public issues did not carry over to gaining votes in the 27th district.
For the 8th district seat in Congress, Chilton resident and city alderman Ron Gruett was swamped by incumbent Reid Ribble. Part of the reason for that result could be traced to the imbalance in funds available to Congressional candidates.
Tale of the Campaign Treasuries
A tabulation that Gruett shared by e-mail on October 20 indicated that he had $2,669 (less than $1 per resident of Chilton) on hand to conduct his campaign while Ribble had nearly $1.374 million (nearly $2 per 8th district resident) at his disposal. The numerical spreads and multiples between incumbents and challengers weren’t as great in Wisconsin’s other Congressional districts but the multiples were still between 6 to 1 and 60 to 1.
With his accumulation of nearly $7.198 million, Cong. Paul Ryan enjoyed a 14 to 1 advantage over his opponent in the 1st district in southern Wisconsin. Ryan was the Republican candidate for Vice-President of the United States in 2012.
Given those numbers, it wasn’t surprising that the “red” political signs put up in the local area seemed to outnumber the “blue” by a margin of about 99 to 1. Had there been more blue signs, the national spending of about $4 billion on the 2014 election would have been even a bit higher.
Advice to Campaigns
Regardless of the largesse of their campaign war chests, I suggest to all candidates that it is not wise — unless they’re getting a free time slot — to schedule campaign ads on other stations in a television market when the telecast of a Green Bay Packer game is in progress on a competing channel. It seems obvious that the ads ought to be on the channel showing the game.
To the Republicans, I ask why the slogan for your campaign signs is “We Stand With Walker” to show support for the incumbent governor. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say “We Step With Walker” or even better to say “We Trot With Scott.”
I’ll withdraw the question if the intent of the wording is to indicate a contrast with and to serve as a backhand slap at the protesters who stood around the capitol building in Madison to express their dissent with actions taken by the current legislature and governor. Maybe it means they “stand” with Walkers beliefs and actions.
I can’t pose a similar question to the Democrats because they didn’t have a slogan. They might want to think of composing one.
Back Off on Abortion
Democrats, however, would be wise to stop harping on “abortion rights” as a centerpiece in their appeal to voters. They need to realize that major attention to this topic is a vote loser today — not to mention the loss of voters less than 20 years hence.
Beyond that, Democrats should be aware that promotion of “abortion rights” as one of their fundamental principles does not play well with Catholics, Lutherans, and evangelical Christians. They account for a majority of the voters in Wisconsin and many other states.
To all regular and sometime voters and all unregistered potential voters, I ask “do you want more of the same?” If not, please stand up and act. That means becoming a regular voter and demanding that all candidates deal with reality rather than fiction.
And some advice to voters who have an e-mail address. Don’t ever give that address to any political party unless you’re willing to be inundated with dozens of e-mails every day during the election season.
Seeking a Solution
If my attempted illustrations of irresponsibility have any validity, doing something about them would require participation in the political process by a great majority of those who are now on the sidelines. They have the potential to completely change the cast of those in charge of public affairs.
As it stands in the political sphere, especially in the upper echelons, strident adherents in the Democratic and Republican camps are so entrenched in their views that attending to public sector needs has come to a virtual standstill except for advocating for one’s stance. It seems that every topic entering the public agenda is greeted with an uncompromising and choking political twist.
President John F. Kennedy was quoted as saying that what was needed was “the right answer” to questions and decisions in the public sector — not “the Republican answer” or “the Democratic answer.”
That plea is more pertinent than ever today. It’s up to everyone to identify and support people willing to employ a cooperative mindset in conducting activities in the public sector. As things stand today, unfortunately, achieving anything resembling that state of affairs appears to be a very long shot.