A top aide to President Trump’s reelection campaign appeared in late November at a Wisconsin event and told Republican politicians and operatives—including Wisconsin State Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and Wisconsin Republican Party Executive Director Mark Jefferson—“Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places”—in battleground states such as Wisconsin.
Justin Clark, a senior political adviser and senior counsel to Trump’s reelection campaign, also told the Republican National Lawyer’s Association gathering, “Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.”
Those remarks from an audiotape of the event obtained by the group One Wisconsin Now and shared with the Associated Press sure sound like a threat to ramp up voter suppression and voter intimidation in Wisconsin.
Clark, when confronted by the AP, tried to do some cleanup. “As should be clear from the context of my remarks, my point was that Republicans historically have been falsely accused of voter suppression and that it is time we stood up to defend our own voters,” he said. “Neither I nor anyone I know or work with would condone anyone’s vote being threatened or diluted and our efforts will be focused on preventing just that.”
But the record of the Republicans and their allies, in states across the country, invites a skeptical response to this attempt by Clark to absolve himself, the Trump campaign, and the GOP.
Arguing that voter suppression has become “a feature for the GOP,” Stacey Abrams, the founder of the voting rights group Fair Fight, says, “Wisconsin, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Florida… you name the competitive state, and I can tell you their plan. They’re just finally saying the quiet part out loud.”
That’s definitely the case for Wisconsin.
The state over the past decade has seen repeated efforts to restrict voting rights by legislative Republicans and former Governor Scott Walker. Restrictive “voter ID” laws and limits on early voting were put in place. In addition, as the AP noted, “Republican officials [have] publicly signaled plans to step up their Election Day monitoring after a judge in 2018 lifted a consent decree in place since 1982 that barred the Republican National Committee from voter verification and other ‘ballot security’ efforts. Critics have argued that the tactics amount to voter intimidation.”
This month, a conservative group got an Ozaukee County judge—who took the bench as a Republican appointee—to order the state to purge 234,000 registered voters from the rolls because they may have moved.
That order is being appealed. But if it stands, there is a real likelihood that eligible voters will have a harder time casting ballots. “Any time people have to go through extra steps to vote, and certainly re-registering is a significant additional step, the result is that fewer people end up voting,” said Attorney General Josh Kaul. “Fewer people will be registered. A number of people will have to re-register.”
Kaul was right to express that concern. But it should not stop there. Hopefully, concerns expressed by Kaul and attorneys general in other states will extend to broader issues regarding voter suppression that have been raised by recent media reports—including the Clark audio.
Kaul is a Democrat, but this goes beyond partisanship. As Wisconsin’s chief law enforcement officer, he has a responsibility to ensure that parties and candidates respect the rules with regard to voting rights—along with Wisconsin’s historic commitment to high-turnout elections.
The attorney general should open an inquiry into the issue, with an eye toward determining just exactly what Justin Clark meant when he said, “Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places” such as Wisconsin. Voters in Wisconsin, and every other state, have a right to know whether there is a threat that the “tradition” will continue in 2020.