With news that Democrats will likely be caving to pressure from “centrist” lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin, shelving President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better package, and reneging on their campaign promises to voters, the party’s electoral fortunes are looking bleak heading into 2022. If Democrats continue failing to deliver on their campaign promises, what will the repercussions be in states like Wisconsin—a key swing state that played a pivotal role in securing electoral victories for Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020?
Reporting from Wisconsin, TRNN’s Jaisal Noor sat down with Robert Kraig, executive director of the pro-democracy nonprofit Citizen Action of Wisconsin, to discuss the steep hill Democrats already have to climb to combat voter suppression from Republicans, to say nothing of the struggle to keep voters from giving up on both parties entirely.
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This story is part of a series that was made possible with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Speaker: I can’t vote for it, and I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t.
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. This weekend, Senator Joe Manchin signaled he was killing Joe Biden’s Build Back Better economic infrastructure plan, while he and other centrist Democrats like Krysten Sinema have refused to bypass the filibuster to enshrine voting rights into law. What consequences will these actions, Democrats refusing to deliver on campaign promises to the voters who supported them, have in states like Wisconsin? A pivotal swing state, Wisconsin helped Biden secure the 2020 election after giving Donald Trump a key win in his 2016 campaign. It’s one of the most incarcerated and gerrymandered states in the country. We recently sat down with Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action, a pro-democracy nonprofit. I started off by asking Kraig about Trump’s baseless claims that the election in Wisconsin was stolen from him and the myriad of ways Republicans are actually suppressing voter turnout, especially in communities of color.
Robert Kraig: Wisconsin’s always one of the closest battleground states in recent political history. And the Trump folks are claiming any election that was critical to his defeat was stolen, right? But the stealing really started in earnest 10 years earlier. Wisconsin had a long, progressive tradition of great voting rights, great access, same day registration. We regularly compete with Minnesota for the top turnout in the country. And then in the tea party wave of 2010, we got Scott Walker and a very right-wing Republican legislature. And they immediately, they had a plan, went to work both on making sure they had a permanent legislative majority with, by some measures, the worst maps, the most unfair redistricting or gerrymander in the whole country, which is saying something.
And then a whole series of voter suppression standards. And these voter suppression laws, which they passed through consecutively, ended up in court. We actually are the lead plaintiffs in one of the major lawsuits. They’re a little like Jim Crow in that a lot of them just, the additive effect of all of them reduces voter turnout but many of them are designed to seem reasonable on face. But the one that had the biggest impact was a photo ID for voting. Traditionally in Wisconsin you could vote and register on the same day with something like a utility bill, just any proof that you lived in the place you lived. And you had provisional ballots easily. With photo ID you had attended – And by the way, they limited it in a way that a lot of IDs that their base would use, they thought veterans were more conservative, and you could use your veterans ID, you couldn’t use a student ID – That was all designed to disenfranchise what they consider democratic group.
Jaisal Noor: And I wanted to just on that point about voter ID, because as you said, it seems reasonable. Like most people have ID. You use it to drive a car or to get government services. Why has voter ID turned into a weapon to suppress the vote? How does that work? What’s at play here?
Robert Kraig: They had a very sharp analysis that economic inequality and racial inequality and the level of poverty in urban areas and such that there are a lot of folks who don’t have photo IDs. And they set the system. They’re also saying you can go to the Department of Transportation, a DOT office, and get one. Well, it takes a bunch of time. There aren’t many, they’re cutting down the number of transportation offices for austerity. And so they knew very well it would have a disproportionate impact on low-income folks, which in our system is disproportionately folks of color, and that those dominantly Democratic voters. And if you create that hurdle, you would reduce voter turnout. And in fact, there was a massive reduction in turnout in Milwaukee among African American, and especially of African American, and to some extent Latinx voters, from 2012 to 2016 when it was fully implemented. And so it had its effect.
But they went after a lot of other things too. Early voting they went after hammer and tongs. They tried to change residency requirements to make it much harder if you were at all moved, which affected students. Again, we have a pretty high percentage of students in our electorate relative to most states and they vote more Democratic, a lot more Democratic. And then a lot of folks in the central city who are housing insecure move a lot. And so if you make the residency requirements harder then of course you disenfranchise a number of them. We used to be, when I was the state council director for the union, SEIU, and we had a lot of low-wage workers, just shocked how often the address changed for our key leaders. That shows how high the level of housing insecurity is for these marginalized communities in our society.
Jaisal Noor: And you talked about these voter suppression laws which were billed as ways to secure elections, but there was never any evidence. There was never any evidence that people were voting illegally because of drivers, because of using fake IDs or voting from out of state to come to Wisconsin. So is there any reasonable argument for having these tighter laws or is it purely based on suppressing the vote?
Robert Kraig: It is purely a strategy to suppress the vote. That’s where it came from. That’s what the intent was. The only place where these voter integrity arguments, where there’s almost, there’s almost no identity theft voter fraud. Almost zero. But conservative courts have upheld it as a reasonable way to guarantee voting integrity. So there really is this tight-knit conspiracy between the political part of the right-wing movement that controls the Republican Party And then the judges they get appointed to uphold these things. And of course the US Supreme Court upheld partisan gerrymandering as part of a case that [inaudible 00:06:29] overturned it. Because how can you have a democracy that guarantees one result in a state legislature as we have in Wisconsin?
So yeah, everything else is window dressing and public relations and things that sound reasonable enough to be defensible politically to their base and even to a lot of people in the middle and to a lot of establishment types. But in fact, they are purely political, this modern kind of conservative, and they’re clearly focused, they have been on labor in the state of Wisconsin as well, on what will advance their power, their ability to hold power, period. Everything else is just a justification.
Jaisal Noor: Now I want to, we’re going to talk about what the Democrats have done in response to this and whether it has been adequate and what the hell the Democrats are doing here in response to these threats on democracy. But I want to talk about the maps. You talked about maps, you talked about gerrymandering. So explain what gerrymandering is. People have seen maps of their state and their district, they’re drawn to give one side an advantage. But what’s remarkable about Wisconsin, it’s one of the handful of states where Democrats could win a majority of votes statewide in 2018, but only win 36 of 99 seats in the state House. And that is just an astounding statistic.
Robert Kraig: It’s like an election you would see in an old-line communist country or authoritarian country. It’s not really an election, but it is sanctified by a conservative US Supreme Court. They came in with a strategy that involved voter suppression and involved redistricting, that was multiple states, when there was the wave election in 2010 that produced a lot of Republican governors and Republican state legislators. And what they did is in Wisconsin, it was especially egregious. They paid outside right-wing lawyers a lot of public money to have a secret process to do maps that would withstand any democratic surge. They statistically did a whole lot of modeling to show that the maps they came up with were impossible for the Democrats to win in and then they implemented them. And they’re trying to right now actually go around the governor and implement them, or something close to them, for another 10 years. So to get 20 years of public control because of one election.
Now, gerrymandering goes way back in American history, back to the early 1900s? But it’s now become much more scientific and therefore more precise and effective. And it was very localized then, it was like figuring out how you would maximize the number of Irish representatives in New York City versus Italian versus Polish, the other ethnic groups, versus Jewish. And this is now a systematic national Republican strategy to dominate state government and it’s been very successful in Wisconsin and some other key states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina are also notorious. And they understand that a lot of power in our country is at the state level. Like the city of Milwaukee has very little power relative to state government. And if they can lock up state government, then they can make sure that the folks of color essentially, a majority minority committee like the city of Milwaukee, the only major city in Wisconsin, is disempowered and has very little control of their own lives.
Jaisal Noor: So I wanted to talk about what the Democrats can do. As you said, it’s almost impossible for Democrats to win control of the Assembly and the Senate. That’s probably not going to happen. But Democrats control the governorship and there’s a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate and we have a Democratic president. What have Democrats done to address these issues? We know there’s H.R.1 in the House and the Senate which is not getting traction because of the filibuster. And there’s other things that you and other groups have called on Democrats to do, to exercise their power because if they don’t, then we could end up in a much worse place than we are now.
Robert Kraig: There’s a major difference between what Democrats do when they have power and what modern Republicans do. We’ve seen what modern Republicans do. They do everything to make sure that they have permanent power to undermine the ability of the other side to win. Voter suppression, redistricting, the incredible attack on organized labor that’s almost cut labor density by 40-50% in Wisconsin, by a huge amount. That is all designed to use every single lever they possibly can to dominate and to have permanent power. Democrats then come in as a group, and this is sort of a system problem, and then don’t take sufficiently bold action to defend democracy. And we’re not even talking about asking Democrats to be partisan the way Republicans are right now. We’re just talking about, if there’s an attack on democracy, you need to restore democracy.
And you have to look at where Democrats have power. They don’t have power in Wisconsin in the legislature, they have a governorship for now, Republicans are trying to take back full power in the next election. They have, by a very small margin, full power in Washington. The problem you could say is that yes, there are elements in the Democratic Party, the progressive part of it and even a lot of the center left of it that sees the urgency and wants to be a lot bolder. But then there’s the most conservative part of the Democratic coalition doesn’t see that and is cross-pressured and is often funded by the very same massive interests and billionaires and corporate interests that fund the other side. And the problem is we can’t do anything without all 50 US Senators. And so it’s a real problem that the Republican Party has been purified into really a proto-authoritarian party where they are in lockstep, and then everyone else in the Democratic Party, the Democrats really can’t do anything big and bold, it doesn’t seem, in DC without a much larger majority than we have now.
But then you have like Governor Evers, he’s very much like some of the fears about Merrick Garland, the attorney general for the United States. Is he willing to actually do enough to undo the damage that the other side did? And I think Governor Evers means well, but there’s a huge difference between his willingness to use the power he has and the willingness of Scott Walker, the previous Republican governor who used every single ounce of power he can. And as a result, we will end up not undoing the damage, and in fact are set up for even further damage in the end and and really potentially a threat to democracy itself coming in the next couple cycles.
Jaisal Noor: What’s not discussed enough, I think, are the actual, we’re talking about policy, we’re talking about maps. We’re talking about laws that are passed and court decisions, but what’s not talked about enough is what the impact of these policies are on communities in places like Milwaukee. The same places that Democrats need to win by large numbers in order to win elections. What does that impact look like in terms of, from everything from life expectancy to healthcare outcomes, to education outcomes? Can you lay that out for us?
Robert Kraig: Well, we’ve had a system in Wisconsin now for a while where the cities and counties and school districts have been starved for resources. Now the school districts in wealthy areas are doing okay, but the ones in rural areas and in major urban areas are being starved for resources. And at the city level, there are so few resources that you can’t do anything to counterbalance the massive inequality of our economic system. And so it is almost like Milwaukee, the only major city in Wisconsin, where most people of color in Wisconsin live, that it’s like the city is unrepresented really. Because yes, they have some state representatives and state senators in Madison in the state capital. They have no power. And so you look at state policy, it is tilted towards the suburbs and the exurbs especially as the suburbs will have more competitive, and to conservative areas, period.
And so we can’t do anything about the highest African American child mortality rate in the country. The fact that a major study last year found Wisconsin’s African American community to be 50 out of 50 of major urban areas in the country in African American wellness, which is a combination of health and economic measures. A whole lot of other [things are] worse, it just came out that we have the worst African American incarceration rate in terms of percentage of population in the country, worse than all the places you think might be worse. Wisconsin’s the worst, because we don’t have any power to do anything about it because the state legislature is unrepresentative. It doesn’t actually represent the diversity of the state. And so there’s a direct line between not having real representation and not having policy that deals with the actual problems of people who need the help the most. We need the government to even the playing field for them so that they’ll have a chance to live the American dream.
Jaisal Noor: Now it seems like what the Democratic Party is telling community organizers in places like Milwaukee is that you’re going to have to work harder than you ever have before because they’re not going to do anything to exercise their power. They’re going to just rely on people on the ground to out-organize voter suppression and out-organize the fact that people have to work multiple jobs at minimum wage to make ends meet, and still go out and vote, still go out and be informed. Is this a sustainable strategy? Is this a winning strategy for Democrats?
Robert Kraig: It’s really important, the way modern progressives talk about structural issues, like structural racism and structural inequality and the need for structural reform. If the structure is tilted, it’s very hard by effort to overcome that structure. It’s why racial inequality doesn’t get worse because the structure has been tilted against African Americans and other people of color. The same as true in elections. We already have a highly competitive election system where under-resourced nonprofit groups like us that do major growth turn out, are struggling to try to keep up with the huge money campaigns of the other side. And they’re going to say, oh, just organize harder. As if that’s the way to deal with it.
An analogy I would give is – And if anyone hasn’t tried this you can try this and see how it works – When I was in graduate school once there was a graduate student faculty volleyball game. So you figure, oh well we’ll destroy the faculty, they’re older, right? On a hill with them on the upper part of the hill and you know what? You can’t really win a volleyball game, no matter how stronger and more fit you are, if you’re on a hill. So that’s that kind of structural inequality where Wisconsin is such a closely balanced state it’s often determined by 20,000 votes in a governor’s race, a US Senate race or presidential race.
Jaisal Noor: Which is like half a percentage point.
Robert Kraig: Yeah. So the structural disadvantages are more than enough to make it extremely hard. I mean, so Trump losing Wisconsin by 20,000 votes, that’s even with all the structural undemocratic advantages he had because of the 10 years of previous Republican rule in the state and the conspiracy to undermine voting rights.
Jaisal Noor: So we’ve laid out all the challenges that Milwaukee faces, the structural challenges, the lack of courage by Democrats to deliver change. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. What gives you hope? What gives the people of Milwaukee hope that they are, they will be able to fight for a better world and a fair world and a more just world and more just communities?
Robert Kraig: I feel like there’s been a real sea change in American politics. And there’s obviously been a real surge of progressive organizing and progressive representation in places like Congress. And mass mobilizations. The mobilization over the George Floyd murder, the most recent culmination of Black Lives Matter with the largest civic outpouring and civic engagement in American history. There’s a huge difference between the early Walker administration. So that would be 2012, 2013, 2014. Leading in really to the Hillary Clinton campaign of ’16, when activists knew what the threat was but it wasn’t really well understood. Now it’s much more prevalent. You have a lot more discussion in the media, a lot more average people are understanding, my goodness, democracy is at risk. Now the danger is cynicism because young people, especially young people of color, are wondering if they have any stake in the system, whether it’s worth voting. And the Republicans want to play up that cynicism, because they don’t want these folks to vote.
It’s really vital that now that the Democrats, at least as a broad coalition, are articulating an urgency about this and a concern about this, that we follow through. That is the whole movement, progressives need to push the whole envelope with Democrats to make them follow through. Otherwise, it’s just going to demoralize people. But so you really do have a situation where there’s hopefulness, like it could change because people realize the problem and it’s broadly understood. But it could get worse if elected leaders run and say they’re going to do something and then don’t achieve it. And we just need Democrats as a whole party – I’m not saying, a lot of Democrats in the party are trying, right – But the whole party to actually act with the same urgency and the same decisiveness as conservatives have acted in order to undermine democracy and voting rights. And if we don’t do that we will lose and they will win and we won’t have a democracy anymore.
Jaisal Noor: And these policies we’re talking about, they are supported by majorities of Democrats, majorities of Americans. But there’s basically two people right now that are holding this up, Senators Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin. And the refusal to bypass the filibuster, to pass H.R.1, which to be a solution to a lot of these problems nationally. What’s your message? If you could deliver a message to our senators, what would you tell them?
Robert Kraig: And it’s interesting, there are two ways to view this. That there are two people, so they just have philosophical objections. That’s true. But on the other hand, there’s a whole lot of people behind them. In a way they are a reflection of a system. There is a huge corporate and billionaire lobbying core behind them pulling the strings and their strategy does not come from them. The smoke filled rooms may not be smoke filled anymore, but they exist. So there is a structure and a system behind it but they are the leaders of it. I think since we have to appeal to them, obviously that structure wants to keep things the way they are. And corporate America apparently doesn’t care whether there’s democracy or not, or is oblivious to the threat. Or they don’t understand democracy makes profitability possible. You really don’t have stability if you don’t have democracy and that’s bad for business.
I think to Manchin and Sinema themselves as humans, because they could change their mind, they could do the right thing, that they really should think about the judgment of history. If they really want to go down like some of the folks who didn’t take action against fascism in the twenties and thirties when they had a chance within Italy, within Spain, within Germany, and other places where authoritarianism has taken hold, then they should continue with their current course. If they want to go down like someone like Lyndon Baines Johnson who had fought civil rights but then as president decided to be the great champion of voting rights and civil rights and said what’s the president for, heck what’s the presidency for, anyway? Why don’t you ask yourselves what is being a US Senator for, anyway? Is it for going down history to do the right thing and save democracy? Or is it to be a key person, a key villain in history, and undermining it.
Jaisal Noor: Great. Robert Kraig, thanks so much for joining us.
Robert Kraig: Thank you.
Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.