Op Ed

International Election Observers Would Give Wisconsin a Failing Grade

Ron Johnson proposal to have only Republicans run elections is shockingly brazen.

By - Dec 9th, 2021 12:43 pm
Ron Johnson. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

Ron Johnson. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On Nov. 10, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Republican state lawmakers proposed a hostile takeover of election management in their state. As Johnson told the New York Times, “Unfortunately, I probably don’t expect [Democrats] to follow the rules. And other people don’t either, and that’s the problem.” Johnson’s conclusion: The current system of bipartisan oversight by both parties should be abolished, and Republican legislators must be in control of the elections in which they are competing.

I spent more than two decades living and working overseas to advance democracy and credible elections — giving me plenty of opportunity to see the lengths to which autocrats will go to gain power. Even so, the proposed Wisconsin power grab is shocking in its brazenness. If this occurred in any of the countries where the United States provides aid, it would immediately be called out as a threat to democracy. U.S. diplomats would be writing furious cables, and decision makers would be threatening to cut off the flow of assistance. Yet we are conspicuously failing to hold ourselves to the same standard.

It is difficult to assess actions in our own country through an international lens. We are too mired in events and have too much at stake. But imagine for a moment that we’re a foreign election observer touching down in an unfamiliar land called Wisconsin.

Experts around the world have spent years analyzing the best ways to manage elections to ensure democratic outcomes. A nonpartisan election body is considered best practice. The U.S. aid agency’s own guidelines on elections emphasize the importance of neutral and independent election management. Even when countries establish a nonpartisan body of professionals, there is constant debate around how election administrators are selected and who does the selecting. 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 who was now affiliated with a political party, casting the whole election in doubt.

Knowing all this, our imaginary election observer in Wisconsin would be alarmed by Republican politicians openly stating that they alone should run the election process, rather than a bipartisan commission of professionals. (Johnson has bluntly said that the Republican-controlled state legislature should “reassert its power.”) In other countries, political parties trying to control elections usually attempt to hide their maneuvers. They might try to quietly exert pressure on election officials or curry influence with them behind the scenes. In Cambodia, where I once led an audit of the voter registry that showed serious manipulation by the election commission, its members defended their work by pointing to the commission’s ostensible independence. There is usually at least lip service to the importance of neutral election administration, in large part to assuage the international community.

Would the United States behave better under the scrutiny of foreign observation? Unlikely. We are reluctant to even let observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conduct monitoring missions. We largely ignore neutral democratic assessments of our country, including one recently issued by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance that labeled the United States a “backsliding democracy.” Americans think of ourselves as teachers of democracy, not students — so we tend to ignore external assessments of our behavior, even when it follows the very same standards we have used for judging others.

Now we are increasingly disregarding internal critiques as well, relying on the convenient accusation of partisanship. There are no recognized neutral referees anymore. Wisconsin proposes an indisputably undemocratic action — but calling that out is dismissed as party politics.

During my 25-year-career in international democracy work, I lived through coups 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 lack of a clear path forward.

Wisconsin’s shenanigans are just the latest in a series of actions to undermine the most basic democratic principles we demand of others: One person, one vote. Neutral election management. Majority rule. Acceptance of election results. Peaceful transition of power. Don’t storm your legislature and attack people and then pretend it didn’t happen.

This contempt for past standards creates myriad opportunities for malign actors, foreign and domestic, to drive our democracy into a death spiral.

As I’ve said to desperate democrats elsewhere, it is up to us, the people. No party or leader will save us here. No foreign savior will shake us out of our stupor. Americans need to start caring about democracy enough to act on it. We must organize, engage in peaceful protest and take inspiration from others — such as those brave activists in Hong Kong willing to stand up to the might of the Chinese Communist Party. And if we don’t, if we shrug off acts such as Wisconsin, well, then it’s our own fault. Apathy is how democracies die. I’ve seen it.

Laura Thornton is director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. This column was originally published by the Washington Post.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

3 thoughts on “Op Ed: International Election Observers Would Give Wisconsin a Failing Grade”

  1. MrTea says:

    Johnson is really a sad sick man. Let’s hope that Wisconsinites have not fully lost their minds or their way. We used to have a history of tolerance and good sense. Seems that is quickly evaporating! Time to vote Johnson out of WI. We have had enough of his brand of insanity. What Johnson and other extremist right wing Republicans have done to this country and our state is inexcusable and worse dangerous and violent. He and others like him and Trump have set the nation up for disaster and massive civil violence all based on the big lie.. Johnson and his cohorts should pay a heavy price for their corrupt actions. At the very least he should be voted out from his position but we know if he runs and if he loses he will like Trump claim he was cheated and will claim election fraud! Fox News and the all the right wing nuts will support fraudulent claims as they have done since Trump lost. What price should the men and woman who are eroding democracy for their own craven behavior pay? Time the rest of us stand up to prevent disaster. Let’s start by voting this loon Johnson out of WI his 15 min of fame is up. Wisconsin we have had our share of vile politicians who have come from WI. McCarthy and coward Paul Ryan who ran out on WI and Speaker as quickly as he could all for MONEY and his cushy Fox News jop and Scott Walker sold us out and also landed a cushy think tank job now that is laughable for sure Walker and his lies ruined and divided our state took us to an ugly place. Just look at the fraud he and Trump and Vos created at FoxConn talk about Fraud. Money out of all our pockets for a company that makes nothing in WI. Now we are left with Vos and his right wing nuts who are doing everything they can to prevent a loss. Gerrymandering and voter suppression. How sick that the only way Republicans can win at the ballot box is by writing insane laws around the country that allows them to cheat to win! They are the party of nothing. No policy. They are the party of hate lies and white supremacy!

  2. mkwagner says:

    Thank you and well said, Laura Thornton. It becomes more and more apparent each day that Ron Johnson does not believe in or support the form of government established by the US Constitution.
    His notion of a democratic republc has more in common with the regimes of Sadam Hussein, Idi Amin, Mu’ammar Al-Qadhdhāfī, The Taliban, Manuel Antonio Noriega of Panama, Putin in Russia, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, and Nazi Germany ( to name a few.)
    History has recorded how these autocrats denounced universal voting, silenced all forms of dissent, destroying opposition through internment camps (re-education) and assassination. History also recorded the enormous damage they wreaked on economic, health care, educational, financial, and judicial systems.
    All of these autocrats rewrote history to glorify themselves and eliminate all mention of minorities and women (except for their reproductive roles.) The role of citizens was to fulfill their assigned functions and worship the supreme leader.
    This is the vision of Ron Johnson’s America. A society in which wealth and power belongs to the 1%. Everyone else are little more than cogs in the machine.

  3. kaygeeret says:

    Not just RoJo tho’.

    It seems that most of the republican party are carrying the fascist flag forward. The few who were honest, decent politicians have left the Congress or politics in general.

    God help us all.

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