Fight for Empowerment of the People
The on-going struggle in Wisconsin to defend the rights of the workers and strengthen organized resistance recently took the form of striving to win recall elections. A large and sustained effort was made statewide to secure hundreds of thousands of signatures in order to force a recall vote for six Republican Senators. This vote took place August 9, with two of the six defeated. The state Senate is now very closely divided 17 Republicans to 16 Democrats. Republicans organized the recall of two Democrats and their election will take place August 16.
The six Republicans facing recall had voted in favor of the anti-worker law imposed in Wisconsin. The workers, their unions and the youth had resisted the law, occupying the state capital for weeks and raising high their banner of All for One and One for All and, Whose House, Our House! This reflected the growing demand among the people that government be accountable for defending the rights of the people, not the monopolies — and that the people themselves be the decision-makers in their houses of government.
Great difficulties were faced in the recall effort, reflecting the undemocratic nature of the current political set-up. Initial organizing efforts to collect signatures for a recall vote built on the earlier struggle, bringing together various forces, including unions, community and youth organizations. We Are Wisconsin developed as the organized convergence point for the recall, establishing many local organizing committees. Signatures were secured fairly readily, reflecting the broad anger among the people with the anti-worker law and broad anti-social offensive. More than 12,000 people mobilized in the recall districts, contacting more than 1 million voters.
However, actually winning such recall elections is exceptionally difficult, reflecting the same difficulties in winning any election. The set-up is stacked against the people. The electoral districts are drawn in favor of one party or the other, in this case, the Republicans. The ability of the workers and youth to put their own representatives on the ballot is greatly restricted, requiring thousands more signatures, funds and organizing efforts in each district. So the candidates running against the Republicans were all Democrats. And while two of these candidates had enough support to win the election, and others came close, they were defeated. This likely in part reflects the general discontent voters have with both parties.
In addition, Wisconsin implemented a new law requiring that state or federally issued photo ID’s be produced in order to vote. This likely served to block mainly youth and minorities from voting. In this case, this voter suppression likely impacted votes for the Democrats. It is estimated that half of all African American men and 78 percent of those aged 18-24 do not have the IDs required. Just under half of Latino men do not and 59 percent of Latina women do not.
As the forces united and organized for the recall now discuss how to further strengthen organized resistance, challenging the undemocratic character of the existing political set up is on the agenda. Are there worker politicians standing for the anti-war, pro-social agenda of the people to run for office? Should such candidates run? And who decides? The Democratic Party no doubt wants to make use of this broad machinery established. The stand that has been taken, which is that people are organizing for their own agenda and want to keep things in their own hands, is critical to further develop. For example, should efforts be made to create a parallel people’s assembly, further building a convergence point that represents the workers and puts forward alternative solutions on their behalf? What steps can be taken to insure that those doing the organizing work together to discuss and decide the next steps? Again, who decides? Those involved are directly contending with the problem of building a democracy of our own making, where we decide.
Organizing needs to focus on our fight to be decision-makers. We need to target the existing political set up, which marginalizes the working class and people and keeps us out of power. Elections are only one arena of battle. We also need to organize beyond the existing confines that favor the rich and build our own social forums and collectives where we together decide and together take up our decisions and bring them to life.
What stands out about the Wisconsin situation is that the recall fight was taken up and carried through to the end. The battles at the capital, the building of the local committees and convergence of the recall campaign are steps in developing decision-making by the people themselves. As the struggle goes forward now, ways and means must be found to further advance this fight to empower the people and create a democracy of our own making, where we say, Whose House? Our House! Who Decides? We Decide!
Last night, we made history.
Together, we sparked a national movement and we should all be incredibly proud of what we accomplished. By standing up and fighting back, we gave people hope and courage throughout the country. We showed that when we are united and stand together, we are strong and powerful.
We have two new Democratic State Senators, Jess King in Senate District 18 and Jennifer Shilling in Senate District 32. These are historic wins. In the last 85 years, there have been two successful recalls in Wisconsin. Tonight we equaled that number. We have changed the dynamic in the State Senate and we’ve shown Governor Walker that the people of Wisconsin will not stand for his anti-working family agenda.
It has been an unprecedented campaign: thousands of -volunteers fanned out in their neighborhoods to knock on doors, hundreds of local organizing committees were formed, and today voters made their voices heard at the polls.
The last six months have been emotional, empowering and at times heartrending. We have shouted protest chants together, we have experienced the loss of collective bargaining together, we have cried together. And then we rallied, we organized, we collected signatures, we made phone calls, we knocked on doors, and tonight we celebrate together.
Our historic wins are a victory for all of the teachers, students, firefighters, nurses, public employees and Wisconsin families who came together in February and called national attention to these attacks on the middle class.
We are now preparing for what might be the most important elections of the summer. Next Tuesday, August 16th, State Senators Jim Holperin and Bob Wirch — members of the heroic “Wisconsin 14” — face recalls.
Let’s bring home two more wins and let Walker and his right wing, tea party friends know that we will not let their unchecked power go without a fight.
Tomorrow, we are moving our entire staff into the two final state senate districts. We have been up on TV and on the radio and in local newspapers with our ads making the case for our candidates. Most importantly, we have thousands of volunteers signed up to knock on doors this weekend.
Thank you for everything you have done these past six months. We have two more races to win. Help support our Get Out the Vote effort for Senator Holperin and Senator Wirch.
Despite coming up short of retaking control of the Wisconsin Senate, Tuesday’s recall elections sent a clear signal to conservative politicians who are using false pretenses to slash social safety nets, scapegoat public employees and immigrants and take away the rights of working people. The message: Beware. The public will no longer accept your abuses of power.
The fact that there were recall elections at all meant that voter anger overcame the typical inertia of off-cycle, special elections. Contrary to conventional assumptions, turnout in some areas was nearly 60 percent. Democrats were victorious in recalling two Republican senators and they were competitive in every single recall district, which is even more significant given the fact that when Obama carried Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008, Democrats did not win any of these seats. In fact, the GOP carried those districts with 55 percent.
Democrats may have won just two more seats, but they should not see that as the end. It should just be the beginning. Beyond the message sent at the polls, I believe we need to concern ourselves with another question: What lessons will labor and its community allies take away from these recall races? This question is vital. We miss a key opportunity if we measure our success based only on Election Day results and not also on our ability to build permanent progressive infrastructure at the state and local levels.
Currently, many things are going well on that front. Under the umbrella of an impressive political action committee called We Are Wisconsin (WAW), unions, community groups and outraged citizens in the state have joined together to undertake voter education, grassroots lobbying and media advocacy activities. While progressives are often fractured, this organization has demonstrated an admirable degree of coordination among varied groups.
WAW is also innovative because of its independence from the Democratic Party. Labor and its allies have built a field operation functioning outside of party structures. They have raised money independently, tying funds first and foremost to progressive values, not to individual candidates. They have done so with a mission not solely of supporting any candidates who put a “D” next to their names, but rather of promoting an agenda that stands up for civil rights, essential public services and the ability for people to have a voice in their workplaces. Short of nominating candidates on their own ballot line, they have operated very much like a separate party in their campaign around the state senate recalls.
The question for WAW, now that the recall elections are over, is where to go from here. Thus far, the coalition has primarily – and necessarily – waged defensive fights, battles around the state budget and around ousting conservative senators who aided Governor Scott Walker’s power grab. But now, they have an opportunity to build in a more proactive way.
Their challenge is taking the impressive work they have done so far in building community-labor alliances and making sure it does not fall apart now that the polls are closed. Their challenge is to become more than just a conventional electioneering operation and instead, looking to the future, create a real organizing program on the ground.
Over the past several months, the focus of WAW has understandably been the recall election. But, already, they have planted seeds of what should be a strong, ongoing organization. They have gone door to door and talked with countless Wisconsinites. They have asked neighbors to vote, but also to get engaged in opposing the assault on workers’ rights and defending the middle class. If done right, the energies of Election Day can be channeled into an organizing program that will continue to advocate for working people in the state.
The people working most closely with the organization recognize that it would be a shame for WAW to disintegrate and then have to be recreated for the 2012 election cycle. Their challenge is to convince a wider set of allies to stay invested for the long haul. Inevitably, the operation will lose some funding, staff and attention when the high-profile recalls are over. To lessen the potential for a wholesale shutdown, those of us outside Wisconsin must continue to extend our support and enthusiasm. We must continue to spread the word that this is a fight that affects us all – and that it is not over.
Within the state of Wisconsin, public-sector unions will have to face the responsibility of rebuilding their own organizations. The need will be to convince officials in these unions that maintaining an investment in their neighborhoods through community issues is not a distraction from internal union organization or from building political power. Rather it is an essential asset in these tasks. Community-labor involvement and worker organizing cannot be seen as “either/or” options; they must be recognized as mutually beneficial.
A “day after” evaluation of the recall efforts should go beyond the traditional analysis of races and districts where campaigning was or was not successful. It should involve assessing how many future leaders were cultivated out of door-to-door mobilizations and how these people could be integrated into a long-term political operation. The product of such a review should include plans for leadership development, outreach and organizing connected to local and statewide issues. It should mean developing, among leaders and activists, a shared analysis, a shared vision and, ultimately, a shared program that people can take into 2012. Working for the future, together, is the best way for this newborn coalition to demonstrate that all of the work of the past months was not a one-time occurrence, but something that has the potential to be a positive force in shaping the future of Wisconsin politics.
The people of Wisconsin have made amazing progress in taking back their state. Yet, they still have plenty of work ahead of them to build a model for a new kind of political action based on independence, values and collaboration. All of us have an interest in seeing this model built – so we can defend the interests of working people from future attacks and we can take the offensive in advancing them.
Five months to the day after the Republican majority in the Wisconsin State Senate voted to approve Governor Scott Walker’s plan to strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees, two of the governor’s most prominent allies in the chamber have been removed from office. Western Wisconsin State Senator Dan Kapanke and eastern Wisconsin Senator Randy Hopper were both defeated in recall elections that provided a powerful indication of the state’s anger with Governor Walker’s assault on worker rights.
Running in districts that were drawn to elect Republicans, that have consistently elected Republicans for generations, and that all backed Walker last November, the Democrats prevailed. “Six months ago no one would have ever expected we would be where we are tonight. The people of Wisconsin have made history,” said Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller. “Democrats, moderates, independents and even Republicans fought back against the radical Walker overreach that attacked core Wisconsin values. We fought on Republican turf and added two Democrats to the State Senate.
The Democrats did no take control of the Senate from the Republicans, as labor, farm and community activists — who filled the streets of the state’s capitol, city, Madison, and other communities with mass protests in February and March — had hoped would be the case. While Kapanke was defeated by Democratic challenger Jennifer Shilling and Hopper was defeated by Democrat Jess King, three other Republican incumbents who were forced into recall races — Rob Cowles in the Green Bay area, Luther Olsen in the center of the state and Sheila Harsdorf in the northwest — prevailed against their Democratic challengers.
A fourth Republican incumbent, Alberta Darling who has for many years represented a suburban Milwaukee district, was declared the victor over Democrat Sandy Pasch early Wednesday morning after a messy count that saw controversial Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, a Republican stalwart, fail to report the results until late in the evening. Nickolaus stirred a national outcry in April, when she reported two days after a hotly-contested state Supreme Court election that she had discovered more than 7,000 additional votes for the candidate favored by the GOP and Governor Walker. And her delays Tuesday night led Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Mike Tate to complain at one point in the evening that: “The race to determine control of the Wisconsin Senate has fallen in the hands of the Waukesha County clerk, who has already distinguished herself as incompetent, if not worse.”
The recalls of the six Republican senators all played out on conservative turf, in historically Republican districts. The uphill runs were made more difficult by the fact that national groups funded by conservative billionaires such as Charles and David Koch poured money into television advertising on behalf of the incumbents as part of what has been called the first “Citizen’s United” Campaign. (That is a reference to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that removed traditional limits on campaigning by corporations and wealthy individuals.) Watchdog groups predicted that spending in the Wisconsin contests could exceed $40 million.
Against those odds, it is more than merely notable that Democrats were able to dramatically narrow the Republican majority in the Senate, from a comfortable 19-14 margin to a razor-thin 17-16 difference.
That one-vote GOP majority becomes significant from an organizational and policy standpoint. That’s because one Republican senator, Dale Schultz, voted against the governor’s assault on collective bargaining — which he referred to as “colossal overreach.” Schultz has been highly critical of the governor in recent weeks, and the extent to which he decided to work with the Democrats could tip the balance on labor, education and public services issues where the moderate Schultz has differed with his fellow Republicans.
That prospect unsettles Republicans and their special--interest allies, who poured tens of millions of dollars into an effort to defend the incumbents who sided with Walker. Next Tuesday, Republicans will mount challenges to a pair of Democratic senators, Jim Holperin in the northern part of the state and Bob Wirch in the southern part. Because of the uncertainty about the role Schultz will play, Republicans will work hard to displace at least one of the two Democrats — with Holperin being aggressively targeted by a Tea Party candidate, Kim Simac, who has drawn raves from Glenn Beck.
Next week’s recall voting will continue the rolling referendum of Governor Walker’s agenda that began in July, when state Senator Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, defeated a Republican recall challenge by a 67-33 margin -- the biggest victory so far in a struggle that could yet see a recall of Walker himself.
“A grassroots coalition sparked by hundreds of impassioned community members worked countless hours on behalf of a belief in Wisconsin as not just a place, but as an idea worthy of preserving,” said Sandy Pasch, one of the Democratic recall candidates.
“On Tuesday night, Wisconsin spoke loud and clear with the recall of two entrenched Republicans. This is an accomplishment of historic proportions...,” said Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Tate. “The fact of the matter remains, that, fighting on Republican turf, we have begun the work of stopping the Scott Walker agenda.”
Five mo nths after Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin pushed through a law stripping public unions of their bargaining rights, the Republican Party has paid a price. Two of the state senators who backed the law were thrown out of office by voters on Tuesday and replaced with Democrats. Mr. Walker’s opponents did not succeed in turning over the Senate, but it was still an impressive response to the governor’s arrogant overreach.
Recall elections are extremely difficult to win; only two had succeeded in the state in the last 80 years. The districts lean Republican, and getting people to turn out in an unusual off-year election is always a struggle. Had Democrats won one more district, they would control the Senate, but they were also trying to send a warning to Republican lawmakers around the country who are trying to break public employee unions. In that, they succeeded.
Republicans will not admit this, but the numbers showed significant strength for Democrats even in the districts they lost — strength that could grow if lawmakers continue cutting spending and taxes while reducing the negotiating rights of working families. In one rural senatorial district that had not elected a Democrat in a century, the Democratic candidate reached 48 percent of the vote. Another race was also close, and as Nate Silver noted in The Times, the overall results suggest that a contemplated statewide recall of Mr. Walker himself would be too close to call. (Two Democrats face recalls next week.)
Mr. Walker and his colleagues tried to paint the unions as unwilling to sacrifice a bit of their pensions and health benefits in rough fiscal times. It was heartening to see more than 160,000 Wisconsin voters reject that false notion. The unions had already agreed to significant concessions on both; what the Republicans really wanted was to break their organizing ability by ending bargaining on anything except wages and limiting raises to inflation.
The measure they enacted, which would block withholding of union dues from state employees’ paychecks, was aimed solely at labor’s political power and had nothing to do with the state budget. But Tuesday’s vote proved that the unions and the middle-class voters who support them remain a potent force.
It was probably a stretch for union supporters to go after six incumbent senators, rather than concentrate their forces on the most vulnerable. Nonetheless, voters around the country who oppose the widespread efforts to undermine public unions — largely financed by corporate interests — should draw strength from Tuesday’s success, not discouragement.
A series of Wisconsin special elections this summer are being watched as testing grounds for how riled up both Democratic and Republican voters will be in a key state for 2012. But voting rights advocates are also watching the elections for early indications of how a rash of stringent voter ID laws that have swept the country this year will play out.
In May, Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed into law what is arguably the country’s most restrictive photo ID bill. Wisconsin was one of 32 states nationwide in which legislators have debated creating stricter voter ID rules in 2011; the bills have passed in six states—Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Voting rights watchdogs say this new slate of laws and bills are of a different scale than those seen in previous years and warn that they will disenfranchise young voters and those of color. Millions of eligible voters don’t have the state-issued photo IDs the bills would require, and opponents of the laws say that the costs of obtaining such IDs could be an unconstitutional poll tax.
“It’s in response to demographic change and record turnout by voters of color in 2008,” said Denise Lieberman, senior attorney at Advancement Project, an advocacy group that works on voter issues and published a study in April that reviewed each of the state proposals at the time. “African American turnout nearly matched white turnout in 2008, and you saw upsets in places like North Carolina that took a lot of people by surprise.”
Last week, Wisconsin held the first in a series of special elections scheduled for the summer. The votes come in the shadow of Walker’s high-profile move to strip most public employees of collective bargaining rights last spring—an ugly debate that prompted recall campaigns against both Republican and Democratic legislators. The elections have provided voting officials an opportunity for a “soft implementation” of the new voter ID law and a window into how it will work when it takes effect next spring.
The law requires voters to show specific forms of photo identification and sign a poll book before receiving a ballot. Three recall elections took place last week, including ones in Lincoln and Kenosha counties. County clerks from both places told ColorLines that the elections went smoothly, but noted that the new process will take time to run efficiently.
Karen Peters, county clerk for Lincoln County, explained that poll workers were trained to ask for IDs, but did not turn away voters who failed to show one. She said the transition next year will pose unique challenges. “We’re changing all the forms, we have 60,000 envelopes we’ll have to throw away because of wording changes, a lot of training for inspectors,” Peters said. “We’re finding a lot of conflict.”
But another clerk, who is not in one of the counties that held elections last week, recounted a post-election debrief among officials that identified several concerns about the new law. According to that account, forwarded to ColorLines, the new system significantly slowed the voting process, at least doubling the amount of time each voter spent at the polls. The number of officials required at each polling place is expected to nearly double, and officials are concerned about increased opportunity for frivolous challenges to voters. Meanwhile, some voters were angry about having to sign the poll book; some were so upset that they left the polling place without voting.
The state Department of Civil Rights has identified striking racial disparities in voters who don’t have state-issued drivers licenses or photo IDs, according to the clerk. More than half of all black men and 78 percent of black men aged 18-24 don’t have them. Just under half of Latino men and 59 percent of Latina women are without the IDs as well, as are half of all black women. Conversely, 17 percent of all white men and women don’t have the requisite IDs.
Previous studies have shown a surprising number of eligible voters nationwide don’t have state or federally-issued IDs. Eleven percent of Americans—about 21 million people—don’t have government-issued photo IDs, and the vast majority of them are people of color, senior citizens, and younger voters. The exact numbers are telling: 25 percent of African-Americans—5.5 million people—don’t have IDs, and neither do 15 percent of those earning annual salaries of $35,000 or less, 18 percent of people age 65 and older, and 20 percent of voters age 18-29.
One reason is that photo IDs are sometimes too expensive. On top of the cost of obtaining the ID itself, which can go up to nearly $25, eligible voters often have to provide supplemental materials such as original birth certificates or naturalization papers, which can cost up to $200 to obtain if you have lost them. Ironically, 17 states require a photo ID to obtain a birth certificate.
Meanwhile, Walker’s administration is working to finalize a plan that would close 10 DMV’s across the state — making it even harder for people to obtain state-issued IDs. Business Week reported that the decision of which DMVs to close seems to be based on politics, “with the department targeting offices for closure in Democratic areas and expanding hours for those in Republican districts.”
A Manufactured Threat
At the time that Walker signed the new bill into law, he called it “common sense reform” that would go “a long way to protecting the integrity of elections in Wisconsin,” according to the Huffington Post.
But study after study has found that voter fraud is at best extraordinarily rare. Research has shown that most cases of fraud actually involve benign clerical errors, address changes, or voters’ confusion with the system itself. Voting rights advocates also point out that penalties for fraud already exist. If committed during a federal election, voter fraud draws a possible sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
“Fraud by individual voters is a singularly foolish way to attempt to win an election,” wrote Justin Levitt in a 2007 report by the Brennan Center. It is more likely that a person will be struck by lightening than commit an act of voter fraud, the report finds.
That has not stopped Republican legislatures from lobbying for harsher laws. Republicans began promoting the idea of widespread fraud after 2000’s hotly contested presidential election. The Conference of State Legislatures notes that between 2001 and 2010, more than 700 voter identification bills were introduced in 46 states. This year more than three dozen states, including Texas, Missouri, North Carolina and Wisconsin have introduced strict voter ID laws.
The Advancement Project’s April study likened the new measures to poll taxes, the Jim Crow-era practice that kept many black voters from the polls and was ruled unconstitutional in 1937.
And it is a costly endeavor for both individuals and cash-strapped states. For instance, North Carolina already has a $3.7 billion budget shortfall; its proposed photo ID requirement is estimated to cost the state about $20 million to implement. To make matters worse, in order for laws like the one in Wisconsin to hold up in court, states have to be prepared to take on the costs of providing free IDs to residents who are eligible to vote and cannot afford them.
Lieberman also worries about the training and consistency of poll workers. Currently, local authorities within more than 4,500 different election systems oversee more than 20,000 election officials, 700,000 voting machines, and 1.4 million poll workers. “Effective poll worker training is huge,” Lieberman notes. “You leave the discretion of the credibility of an ID to a poll worker, whose average age is 72.”
Lieberman adds, “If the poll workers say that [the ID] does not look like you, you have no recourse.” Voters must then fill out a provisional ballot.
And that is far more likely to happen to voters of color than their white counterparts at the polls. A survey conducted by Harvard researchers after the 2006 elections found that 47 percent of white voters were asked for photo ID, compared to 54 percent of Latino voters and 55 percent of African Americans.
“For many people, the burden is simply overwhelming,” Lieberman said.