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Guest Essay: ‘The Dark, Forgotten Carnival’
Michael Gableman’s sham election audit is absurdist theater. What makes it dangerous is that it could fade into obscurity as Republicans begin to act on its recommendations.
The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
This is a guest essay by Phil Rocco, associate professor of political science at Marquette University.
“Do we need to start messaging ‘widespread reports of election fraud’ so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number? I obviously think we should.”
Those words—contained in a leaked e-mail obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel––were written not in the run-up to Jan. 6, but 10 years earlier, on April 6, 2011. And their subject was not a presidential election, but a contest for the Wisconsin Supreme Court that pit incumbent Justice David Prosser against challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg.
Their author was Steve Baas. You will not recognize that name (perhaps even if you are an inveterate reader of The Recombobulation Area). In any case, by the time you are finished reading this, it will have slipped back into obscurity. Yet as Republican efforts to perpetuate the myth of voter fraud have increasingly approximated absurdist theater — the latest offering of which is the 136-page report of former state Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman — it is obscurity, rather than absurdity, that is the key to understanding the perilous condition of Wisconsin’s democracy.
You can be forgiven for not knowing who Steve Baas is, just as you can be forgiven for knowing nothing about the politics of Wisconsin. Once every four years, out-of-state Wisconsinologists, viewing the state as a kind of mystical augury, will naturally sidle up to the diner counter or cast oracular dice at a neighborhood bar. Yet even before the WOW counties’ votes are tabulated, the experts are in the wind, checked out of the Hampton Inn of the Mind, never having tasted a morsel of Kringle or having learned how to pronounce the names Vos, Kooyenga, or LeMahieu. Having performed its function as a national urine sample, Wisconsin recedes into the mists of political oblivion and the thick black effluvia of its factory farms.
But locals, in my experience, hardly find it easier to apprehend the politics of their state. This is not for lack of a political ethic on their part. Politics here, absurd though it is, can be shrouded in obscurity. Baas is a case in point. For 16 years, he was the chief lobbyist for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. His comments urging conservative operatives to spread lies about voter fraud attracted mild controversy following the leak. If it cost him anything, it was a 2020 appointment as the chairman of the VISIT Milwaukee board, following objections from Alderman Michael Murphy, who cited Baas’ “sad and cynical” effort to twist public perceptions about election integrity. Baas’ response came in the oh-gee-oh-shucks tone Wisconsin authoritarianism so often takes on: “Just seems like there are a few more important things to do right now than to re-hash a decade-old statewide political campaign,” he said. The following year he was appointed as the executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.
But it was when Baas’ 2011 comments faded from political-fringe absurdity to institutionalized obscurity that the damage was done. Low salience breeds dark policy. Even before the Act 10 protests at the state capitol had concluded, Republicans in the state legislature enacted a voter ID law, citing exaggerated arguments about voter fraud. Five years later, Republicans disbanded the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board—which had been praised by one legal observer as a “worthy model for other states considering alternatives to partisan election administration at the state level.” Their reason was obvious: the Board’s recent investigation into the alleged unlawful coordination between the Club for Growth and Republican Governor Scott Walker's campaign during the 2012 recall election. Within a few years, Republicans reprogrammed state elections, enacted the most extreme partisan gerrymander in the country, and cut Wisconsin’s unionization rate nearly in half – to roughly the same rate as Alabama, a state with a long and violent anti-union history.
It is in just this way that state politics changes shape; the uproar of a democracy gives way to the ignominious Muzak of authoritarianism. As the channels of dissent are closed off one-by-one—as the legislative seats go uncontested, as local governments’ authority is bled dry, as union density dwindles—the sense of political possibility fades away. Because the withered husk of democratic institutions remains––and perhaps because “resistance” is now a professionalized project––there is no rebellion. Instead, “[f]rom time to time public attention is focused on scandalous situations in state government,” as Grant McConnell once wrote, yet “[t]hese moments pass; state affairs recover their wonted obscurity and it is assumed that the wrongdoers have been exposed and punished.” But yesterday’s wrongdoers are today’s charitable board members. The wrongdoers enjoy their weekends Up North.
What started in Wisconsin did not end in Wisconsin. Baas and his Republican colleagues were an example for an anti-majoritarian party on the move. Of course, because bad ideas are perennials in American politics, no one needed Wisconsin to serve as an example. But, within the conservative ideational circuitry, bad ideas are without borders.
During and after the 2016 election, Donald Trump made numerous unfounded claims about massive voter fraud, even suggesting that fraud itself was the reason he lost the popular vote. Shortly after taking office, he created an institution to buttress these claims: the President’s Advisory Commission on Electoral Integrity (PACEI). As the Commission’s vice chair, Trump appointed Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Like Trump, Kobach had long made claims about widespread illegal voting by noncitizens in the U.S., also without evidence. He had also led campaigns for tougher voter identification laws.
Kobach plowed forward with help from a network of self-styled “voter integrity” experts who produced reports that, while differing on the details, bore a striking similarity to what Wisconsin Republicans have wrung out of the 2020 election. Among the group were researchers at conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which had been developing a “voter fraud” database. The group also featured conservative crusaders like J. Christian Adams, who had long litigated in support of restrictive voting laws and registration-list purges and had co-authored reports with titles like Alien Invasion II: The Sequel to the Discovery and Cover-Up of Non-Citizen Registration and Voting in Virginia. Testifying before the PACEI were also entrepreneurs like Ken Block, former Rhode Island state legislator and president of Simpatico Software Systems, who used the opportunity to hawk new fraud prevention technologies.
Following a series of lawsuits challenging the commission’s lack of transparency and its efforts to hoover up private information, the Trump administration disbanded the commission in 2018.
Yet once Trump’s 2020 loss became clear, so too did the value of the spadework done by the likes of Kobach and conservative-movement actors across the country, including Milwaukee’s own Bradley Foundation. The rest is sorrowful history. Which brings us to Michael Gableman.
Michael Gableman is a tall man with thinning hair and a round face, often captured by photographs in mid-sentence, mouth open, cheeks flushed red, glasses pinched between his fingers. He speaks slowly and deliberately, in a deep Upper Midwest accent. Prior to 2021, Gableman was better known as the former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who had made false advertisements against his opponent which eventually landed him in front of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission on an ethics complaint charging he had violated the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct. When a three-judge court deadlocked on the matter in 2009, the Commission stopped pursuing the case. Two years later, Gableman would face another ethics charge—this time in front of the soon-to-be-dismantled Government Accountability Board—for failing to recuse himself from a case in which he had been alleged to have a financial interest.
Yet if Gableman is not consigned to the murky abyss of Wisconsin political memory, he will be remembered as he appeared on Tuesday in front of the Wisconsin Assembly’s Elections Committee, cartoonishly presenting the results of his sham audit of the 2020 election. Hired by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in 2021 and presiding over a staff that included conspiracy theorists and former members of the Trump administration, and compensated at $11,000 a month, Gableman has gone—as Rodgers and Hammerstein say—“about as far as you can go.”
Virtually every claim in Gableman’s 136-page “second interim” report––a title which apparently indicates that his work is not yet done––has already been litigated or dissected by other entities, including Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau, for more than a year. Its central policy recommendation, that the results of the 2020 election should be decertified, was regarded even by state Republican leaders as an impossibility.
Yet the point of the report is not information, but performance. Like the Trump spectacle before it, Gableman has created a shadow-puppet theater in which Republican voters will gain further reasons to distrust election results and Democrats will be forced to confront their own powerlessness.
One example will suffice. At the hearing on Tuesday, Gableman played videos of nursing home residents. In these videos, a Republican attorney asked residents to choose between candidates based on their policy positions regarding tax cuts. Residents were no more or less confused than the average voter might be when confronted with both such situational absurdity and the complexity of the American policyscape. Yet this, Gableman alleged, proved that they were mentally incapable of voting. Setting aside the broader problem of disenfranchising disabled voters, Gableman plainly had no authority to make such a pronouncement. Only a court can declare someone “mentally incompetent”, and the evidence he presented would not pass muster. Which is of course why Gableman was speaking in a committee room, and not a courtroom. He knew it. And he knew that everyone watching him knew it, and they knew he knew they knew it. Which is to say that he is—as the rest of the report suggests—operating under the assumption that the contours of Wisconsin’s democracy are whatever he says they are.
It does not, then, matter whether Republican lawmakers immediately embrace Gableman’s call to dissolve the state's election agency and to decertify the results of the 2020 election. Vos—the landlord and popcorn-factory owner who moonlights as Assembly Speaker—got precisely what he paid for, a clumsily written document based on lies and misrepresentations of facts that will provide years of talking points for a party whose leaders have increasingly demonstrated their willingness to undermine popular will to insulate itself from political competition. However Wisconsin Republicans might disagree on the specifics of what is to be done, they have rarely appeared to have a stopping rule. Especially given their relative level of legislative insulation, there is no compelling force to stop them. We can, among other things, expect further attempts to disenfranchise aging and disabled voters in the next election. We can also expect that anodyne efforts to mobilize voter turnout will be increasingly depicted as inherently suspicious schemes to “harvest ballots”.
Yet as the Steve Baas story illustrates, the evil lurking here is not the noise of Gableman’s carnival. Rather, it is the possibility that––as the calliope music fades into the silence and obscurity of another legislative session––no one remembers it or does anything about it.
Phil Rocco is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. He is the author of Obamacare Wars: Federalism, State Politics and the Affordable Care Act (University Press of Kansas, 2016) and editor of American Political Development and the Trump Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.