As the chairman of the Republican Governors Association and the self-appointed surrogate-in-chief for the Grand Old Party’s candidates for the top jobs in states across the country this fall, Chris Christie has plenty of reasons to want embattled governors like Florida’s Rick Scott and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker to be re-elected.
Yes, yes, Christie wants to elect governors who will stop all this talk about raising the minimum wage. Yes, yes, Christie wants to elect governors who will “start offending people”—like school teachers and their unions.
But that’s not all the New Jersey governor wants from his fellow Republican executives. Among the reasons he mentions for electing Republican governors, says Christie, is a desire to put the GOP in charge of the “voting mechanism” of likely 2016 presidential battleground states such as Florida and Wisconsin and Ohio..
In a remarkably candid speech to the US Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform this week, Christie acknowledged a fact that politicians often avoid: the governor of a state, particularly a governor with allies in the legislature and key statewide posts, can play a big role in deciding how easy or how hard it is for working people, minorities, seniors and students to vote.
The governor, who despite his many scandals still seems to imagine himself as a 2016 Republican presidential prospect, described the gubernatorial—and presidential—stakes to the friendly crowd.
“Would you rather have Rick Scott in Florida overseeing the voting mechanism, or Charlie Crist?” Christie announced, in remarks that referenced Democratic challengers to incumbent Republican governors. “Would you rather have Scott Walker in Wisconsin overseeing the voting mechanism, or would you rather have Mary Burke? Who would you rather have in Ohio, John Kasich or Ed FitzGerald?”
Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio are politically competitive states—contested by both parties in presidential years, often producing close finishes that are ultimately resolved by which side is better at getting its supporters to the polls and getting their votes counted. The Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lost all three states in 2012, as they did most other battlegrounds. Two of these states, Florida and Wisconsin, have dead-heat gubernatorial contests this year. Races are close, as well, in battleground states such as Michigan and Colorado. And polls place a Democratic challenger well ahead of the incumbent Republican governor in the frequently competitive state of Pennsylvania.
These 2014 races are consequential for 2016, Christie told the Chamber group.
“The fact is it doesn’t matter if you don’t really care what happens in these states,” he said, “you’re going to care about who is running the state in November of 2016, what kind of political apparatus they’ve set up and what kind of governmental apparatus they’ve set up to ensure a full and fair election in 2016.”
“All of those things are incredibly important,” Christie concluded.
No one can argue with him on that point.
Battles over Republican proposals to alter the “voting mechanism” have rocked states across the country over the past several years. Hundreds of proposals that civil rights, voting rights and good government groups say could make it harder to vote have been advanced since the 2010 “Republican wave” election, and dozens have been implemented. Media reports tend to focus on Voter ID laws, and the legal wrangling over those initiatives extended deep into the 2014 election season—just as it could continue deep into the 2016 election season.
But requirements that citizens obtain and present particular forms of identification in order to cast ballots are only the beginning of the long list of voting mechanisms that governors can and do have influence over.
“Nationally there has been a real significant battle over the right to vote in a lot of states across the country, and in particular many Republican-controlled jurisdictions, particularly ones where there were highly competitive races, have passed new laws that make it harder for eligible citizens to vote,” Wendy R. Weiser, the director of the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, explained to New Jersey’s Bergen County Record. “This is a fairly recent phenomenon; it really stepped up in 2011 after the 2010 election when there was a real shift in partisan control across the country, and it has continued.”
The laws take many forms, but, explained Weiser, “one thing that they appear to all have in common is that they do all fall more harshly on minority voters, low-income voters, seniors and young voters.”
Consider Wisconsin, a state Christie referenced. Since his election in 2010, Republican Governor Walker has advocated for, signed and defended laws—passed by a Republican legislature which reponds to his “jump” command by shouting in unison “how high?”—that include:
* A radical gerrymandering of congressional and legislative district lines that has also been challenged in the courts and that in 2012 produced a circumstance where substantially more ballots were cast for Democratic legislative candidates but Republicans remained firmly in control.
* A shift in the primary election date so that primaries were moved from September to the peak vacation month of August—when many Wisconsinites are away from home and college students are generally on break.
Walker, himself a 2016 presidential prospect, still finds himself in a very tight race this year. That may explain why the governor and his allies fought so hard to implement their voter ID agenda—with the Republican attorney general even saying after the Supreme Court blocked implementation of the law that he was still looking for ways to put restrictions in place this year. (He finally backed off two weeks before election day, but there are still fears about confusion and complexity.)
Walker’s legislative allies are now openly condemning the state’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Board—which is charged with overseeing elections—and talking about taking steps to force its director out.
Chris Christie has been campaigning hard for Walker, despite the fact that the men are potential rivals for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination, Next week, the New Jersey governor will make his second visit this fall to Wisconsin and the RGA just upped its pro-Walker TV ad buy to $2 million, after polls showed the anti-labor incumbent is struggling. The RGA is all in, as well, for Scott in Florida and for Republicans running in battleground states across the country. That’s smart politics for Christie, as it puts him in the spotlight and allows him to get on the good side of Republicans in key states. And if those Republicans happen to be in charge of the “voting mechanisms” of those states in 2016, Christie reminds us, that could be “incredibly important.”