One of the great contributions that the progressive reformers of a century ago made to the politics of Wisconsin and the nation was the open primary.

Before Robert M. La Follette and the Wisconsin progressive movement placed the issue of how candidates were nominated for partisan offices at the forefront of the national agenda, the designation process was controlled by political bosses who took money from the robber barons of the Gilded Age and then nominated Republican and Democratic candidates who owed their allegiance to the bosses and the political paymasters rather than the people.

La Follette decried “the menace of the political machine” and detailed the corruption of the American political system by corporations, wealthy individuals and their stooges.

Why were the commands of the corporations heard and obeyed in the capitals of the state and nation”?

“It is because today there is a force operating in this country more powerful than the sovereign (citizenry) in matters pertaining to the official conduct. “The official obeys whom he serves. Nominated independently of the people, elected because there is no choice between candidates so nominated, the official feels responsibility to his master alone, and his master is the political machine of his party. The people whom he serves in theory, he may safely disobey; having the support of his political organization, he is sure of his re-nomination and knows he will be carried through the election because his opponent will offer nothing better to the long suffering voter…”

To change this dire circumstance, La Follette championed the open primary, which gave power to the people—not the bosses.

Open primaries could not be controlled by bosses because anyone could enter them, no matter what their ideology or past partisanship.

If a candidate aligned with the corporations wanted to be nominated, he would have to face the voters in an open primary. That meant that the corrupt politician could not be imposed on the process by the political bosses. As La Follette said when Wisconsin legislators embraced his proposal for open primaries in 1904: “The people shall rule.”

Now, more than a century after the state enacted the nation’s first open primary law, Wisconsin still makes it very easy for anyone to enter the primaries of the Democratic and Republican parties.

This has frustrated some Wisconsinites in recent weeks, as Republicans have announced plans to recruit “fake” Democrats to run in the primaries to nominate Democratic challenges to Republican state senators who are being recalled. The Republicans hope to create confusion among the voters, to force Democrats to spend precious campaign money and to delay the eventual day of reckoning for the legislative allies of Governor Scott Walker.

The recruitment drive is a sleazy stunt, and Wisconsinites will see through it.

In fact, it will do severe damage to Republican prospects—so long as Democrats do not climb into the gutter with the GOP.

Some critics of the governor and his agenda have proposed that Democrats might want to mimic the GOP stunt of recruiting fake candidates.

For instance, the group We Are Wisconsin, which brings together community, environmental, farm and labor groups that oppose Walker and his allies, has a suggestion:

“Given the situation Republicans have so despicably concocted to manipulate these recall elections, it is the opinion of We Are Wisconsin that it would be in the interest of Democrats to run candidates in the Republican primaries to ensure the dates of the general election are predictably on August 9th, and that Republicans are forced to win a primary election instead of diverting their unlimited resources to back their ‘fake’ candidates against ‘legitimate’ Democrats. To that end, it would be in the interest of flipping the Wisconsin Senate that interested Democrats contact the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

“This opinion is not rendered lightly. This is the most cynical manipulation of the Wisconsin electoral process in our state’s history, and is being done by a Republican party that has demonstrated no respect for the rule of law and our state’s tradition of clean elections and good governance. Unfortunately, however, after evaluating the strategic implications of their despicable tactics, to simply stand idly by would amount to unilateral disarmament and would almost certainly thwart the will of the hundreds of thousands of voters who support recalling Republican Senators in the upcoming elections.”

After initially sending some mixed signals, Democratic Party leaders seem to be rejecting this suggestion. And rightly so.

The We Are Wisconsin proposal embraced the “two-wrongs-make-a-right” theory of politics.

That may work in Chicago or Louisiana. But it won’t work in Wisconsin.

If Democrats cede the moral and political high ground and engage in the same abuses that the Republicans propose, independent voters—who will be critical players in the final recall elections between Democrats and Republicans—will be inclined to dismiss both parties as practitioners of a win-at-any-cost politics of convenience rather than principle.

To think otherwise is to insult the voters of Wisconsin and the state’s political traditions.

It has always been possible to abuse Wisconsin’s open-primary rules and practices. Political parties could have tried to game the system in any number of instances over the past century. But the practice has been rejected.

Now, the Republican Party of Wisconsin, taking its cue from out-of-state political operatives and corporate donors, proposes to abuse and corrupt the process.

The We Are Wisconsin folks got it right when they said these are “despicable tactics.”

But the We Are Wisconsin folks got it wrong when they suggested that the way to counter the despicable tactics of the Republican Party is to encourage the Democratic Party to act in an equally despicable manner.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin wants to engage in election fraud.

They should be shamed for this abuse of the open primary process that was created to break the bosses and their corporate overlords—not imitated.

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