Republican takeover could be fatal to American democracy
On November 10, Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson and Republican state lawmakers proposed a hostile takeover of election management in their state of Wisconsin. As Johnson told the New York Times, “Unfortunately, I probably don’t expect (Democrats) to follow the rules. And neither do others, and that’s the problem. Johnson’s conclusion: The current system of bipartisan control by both parties should be abolished, and Republican lawmakers should control the elections in which they participate.
I have spent over two decades living and working abroad to advance democracy and credible elections, which has given me many opportunities to see how far the autocrats will go to come to power. Even so, the proposed takeover in Wisconsin is shocking in its boldness. If this were to happen in one of the countries where the United States provides aid, it would immediately be labeled a threat to democracy..
It is difficult to assess stocks in our own country through an international lens. We are too mired in events and have too much at stake. A non-partisan electoral body is considered a best practice. The US election aid agency’s own guidelines underscore the importance of neutral and independent election management. Even when countries establish a non-partisan body of professionals, there is a constant debate about how electoral administrators are selected and who carries out the selection. In Georgia (the country), I once had to listen to hours of complaints about how an election official had a sister who, in high school, dated a man now affiliated with a political party, questioning the whole election.
Knowing all this, our imaginary election watcher would be alarmed by Republican politicians openly declaring that they should lead the electoral process alone, rather than a bipartisan commission of professionals. In other countries, political parties that try to control elections usually try to hide their maneuvers. They could try to quietly exert pressure on election officials or influence with them behind the scenes.
In Cambodia, where I once led an audit of the electoral list which showed serious manipulation by the electoral commission, its members defended their work by invoking the alleged independence of the commission. There are usually at least lip service to the importance of a neutral election administration.
Would the United States fare better under the scrutiny of foreign comments? Unlikely. We even hesitate to allow observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to carry out monitoring missions.
We largely ignore our country’s neutral democratic assessments, including one recently released by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which called the United States a “backward democracy.” Americans see themselves as professors of democracy, not students.
Wisconsin is proposing unmistakably undemocratic action – but calling it is rejected as party policy.
In my 25-year career in international democracy, I have experienced blows and conflicts and observed dozens of elections. I thought I had seen it all – only to find myself overwhelmed by our own democratic dysfunction and the lack of a clear path forward.
The Wisconsin shenanigans are just the latest in a series of actions designed to undermine the most basic democratic principles we demand of others: one person, one voice. Neutral election management. Majority rule. Acceptance of election results. Peaceful transition of power.
This disregard for past norms creates a myriad of opportunities for malicious actors, foreign and domestic, to lead our democracy into a death spiral.
As I have said to desperate Democrats elsewhere, it depends on us the people. No party or leader will save us here. Americans need to start caring enough about democracy to act on it. We need to organize, engage in peaceful protests, and draw inspiration from others – like those brave activists in Hong Kong ready to stand up to the might of the Chinese Communist Party. Apathy is the death of democracies. I saw it.
Laura Thornton is Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States