Wisconsin Legislature Sets the Stage for a Showdown This November

Since 2018, Wisconsin’s Republican-led state legislature has been at odds with Democratic Governor Tony Evers. Those tensions could come to a head this fall when it’s time to certify the results of the state’s election in what’s sure to be a close race in a key swing state.

Evers defeated Republican incumbent Scott Walker in 2018, prompting fears among Republicans that he would undo years of work to limit the government’s power in the state. Their solution? Pass legislation that would limit Evers’s power to do the things they feared.

Following an all-night session during the lame-duck period before Evers took office in January 2019, Republicans delivered legislation for Walker to sign as he left office. The measures called for moving the state’s presidential primary date, tightening restrictions on early voting, and staying in a lawsuit aimed at overturning the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans framed their actions as seeking to uphold separation of powers and limiting the power of a liberal governor to implement policies that did not have support from the state’s conservative voters.

“I think Gov.-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin,” said State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. “The idea that there’s going to a complete shift in Wisconsin, I don’t have any problem highlighting that right now. I want the people to understand that there is going to be a divide between the legislative and executive branch.”

Not surprisingly, Evers saw the issue a little differently. He blasted the legislature for making a power grab of its own and undermining the legitimacy of the state’s government in the process.

“Wisconsin has never seen anything like this,” Evers told USA Today. “Power-hungry politicians rushed through sweeping changes to our laws to expand their own power and override the will of the people of Wisconsin who asked for change on November 6th.”

The Battle Continues

Evers and the legislature have continued to find themselves at odds over the past two years. As many states postponed primary elections amid the COVID-19 outbreak this spring, Republicans fought attempts by Evers to delay Wisconsin’s primary.

The election happened as scheduled on April 7 after a last-minute court challenge from Evers was denied. Critics argued that reduced polling places in Milwaukee and other urban areas disenfranchised voters of color as some waited in line all day to cast ballots. 

Looking ahead to November, Republicans are seeking to further expand their control of the state legislature by gaining supermajorities in the state House and Senate. The state held its non-presidential primary August 11, which included more than 500,000 mail-in ballots

If Republicans can gain seats in the state legislature, they could make things even more difficult for Evers during the second half of his term and set the stage for Republican control of the legislature for years to come.

Wisconsin is also a critical swing state in the presidential election. It was one of several states that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. According to FiveThirtyEight at the time this article was written, Biden currently has a 7 percent lead over Trump in the state. 

The conflict between Evers and the legislature could come into play if the state’s election is contested this fall. Both the governor and the state legislature must certify election results in order for a state’s share of the Electoral College to be awarded. 

It’s not clear what would happen if Evers and the legislature disagree about who received more votes, but it is clear that such a conflict could arise given disagreements about how to process and certify a large number of mail-in ballots expected this fall.

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