September 15, 2023

Another Rising Threat to Our Democracy

Russ Feingold President

Across the country, we are seeing an alarming and deeply anti-democratic trend. Conservative state legislatures are rebuking the will of their state’s voters and impeaching or expelling duly elected officials with whom the conservative supermajorities disagree. This trend is yet another facet of our country’s struggle between pursuing the promise of a multiracial democracy and succumbing to authoritarianism.

This week, the Wisconsin legislature’s conservative supermajority created a panel to explore the criteria for impeaching Justice Janet Protasiewicz, who was elected earlier this year and sworn in last month. The April election for the fifth seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court was the most expensive judicial election in the country’s history and saw Protasiewicz win by 11 percentage points. Eleven points is a big win in any state. It’s an astounding margin in a purple state like Wisconsin. But whether Protasiewicz had won by one vote or 11 percent, her election should have put an end to the question of who would hold the applicable seat on the WI Supreme Court for the duration of the corresponding term.

Instead, the Wisconsin legislature’s conservative supermajority has threatened and is now taking steps to deliver on its threat to impeach Justice Protasiewicz – before she has heard a single case. The threat of impeachment is directly aimed at influencing the Court’s upcoming decision on a case regarding the state’s gerrymandered electoral maps – which have given conservatives their supermajority in the legislature.

The expectation is that the Court, as a result of Justice Protasiewicz’s election and the resulting 3-2 progressive majority, will require the state’s gerrymandered electoral maps to be redrawn. Non-gerrymandered electoral maps would almost certainly result in conservatives losing their supermajority and potentially even their majority control of one or both legislative bodies. Rather than respect the will of voters and the judicial process, conservative legislators are striving to impeach Protasiwicz, anticipating that doing so would result in a 2-2 vote on the electoral maps by the four remaining justices. A tied vote would leave the gerrymandered maps in place and enable conservatives to retain their supermajority in the legislature. Everything about this scheme is antidemocratic and flies in the face of the express will of Wisconsin voters.

The removal of duly elected officials for partisan reasons is a deeply troubling and anti-democratic trend that is on the rise across the country. In Ohio, conservative legislators were so afraid of what voters might do in November when given the chance to weigh in on reproductive rights that they attempted to change the state’s entire constitutional amendment process to make it harder for direct democracy to succeed. Thankfully, voters turned out en masse for the August election and voted down the attempt to complicate the amendment process.

In Tennessee and Montana, conservative state legislative majorities attempted to expel and silence duly elected state legislators for advocating for their communities from their respective House floors. In Tennessee, we saw a strong rebuke to the expulsions with the two state legislators quickly reappointed to their seats and subsequently reelected. This did not undo the damage done to our democracy, however, nor stop the trend from spilling over to other states.

In Texas, there has essentially been a hostile takeover of key city and county offices in Houston, simply because the state legislature believes it knows best despite what Houston voters have explicitly asked for. In Florida, Governor DeSantis has removed multiple elected prosecutors with whom he disagreed.

The list of elected officials who have been unfairly removed or have had their authority cut back continues to grow. No longer are election results respected and considered decisive until the next election. Conservative state legislators and officials, often benefiting from gerrymandered maps and voter suppression laws, are abusing their power to override the will of voters when their party loses. In addition to those elected officials who are directly targeted, this trend risks intimidating other elected officials and making them reluctant to upset the status quo by pursuing reforms. Our work to uphold the security and sanctity of our elections includes ensuring that duly elected representatives are allowed to do their job and serve out their full term. ACS will continue to sound the alarm about this dangerous trend and urges its members to engage at their local level.