Two can play at this game: Referendums and voter turnout

Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 23, 2023

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Republicans have rolled out a range of referenda proposals of late, including an advisory question on work and welfare and constitutional amendment questions on bail reform.

Democrats see the GOP’s direct democracy efforts as a cynical move to drive up conservative turnout in April’s state Supreme Court election that will determine whether the high court is controlled by liberals or conservatives.

In part, they’re right.

While few Republicans will admit as much publicly, they know that ballot questions on crime and punishment, taxpayer-funded public assistance and other hot button policy questions will bring conservative voters to the polls. And they know it will take strong right-of-center turnout in a generally soft turnout spring election if conservative justices hope to hold their tenuous 4-3 majority in the Supreme Court.

But Republicans are merely taking a page from the Democratic Party’s playbook.

Democrats led non-binding advisory questions on legalizing marijuana in 16 Wisconsin counties, driving liberals to the polls in higher numbers in 2018 to help elect Democrat Gov. Tony Evers. The left went back to the weed playbook in November, where legalization ballot questions were approved in three counties — Dane, Eau Claire, and Milwaukee — and five cities.

“Should marijuana be legalized, taxed, and regulated in the same manner as alcohol for adults 21 years of age or older?” Dane County’s advisory referendum question asked. The county, home to Madison, the seat of state and county government and one of the most liberal cities in America, also pushed and passed marijuana referendum questions in 2010 and 2014 — with support ranging from 64.5 percent to 76.4 percent.

Turnout in Dane County in 2018 was an eye-popping 88 percent. It was 89 percent in the 2020 presidential election, and more than 80 percent in the 2022 midterms. President Joe Biden and Evers claimed narrow victories against Republicans Donald Trump and Scott Walker in their respective 2020 and 2018 elections.

Republicans want to see the same voter interest with the referenda they’ve proposed.

“Certainly you hope it has that effect,” a Republican legislative aide told Empower Wisconsin last week as the GOP-controlled Legislature was passing the measures to send the bail reform amendment and the welfare question to the April 4 ballot. “It’s one of those classic cases where everyone knows that this is part of this in what is the most important election for the direction of the state in more than 10 years.”

Nearly a dozen years ago, Republican Gov. Scott Walker was fighting for his political life in a recall election driven by labor unions incensed over Walker’s Act 10 government reforms. Walker won that battle, becoming the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election.

Republican sources point to the hypocrisy of Democrats, who wag their fingers at conservatives for doing what they’ve been doing for years. In fact, this week Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to replace the welfare ballot question with a referendum on Wisconsin’s abortion ban, in effect since the U.S. Supreme Court ended Roe v. Wade. Dems argued that poll after poll shows Wisconsinites support limits on the abortion prohibition. After so many polls, Republicans counter, why is it necessary to ask the question in a referendum?

There’s nothing illegal or inherently wrong with voter-drawing ballot issues. Wisconsin has been doing it for a long time for proposed conditional changes and to gauge voter opinion.

Republicans, too,  say the referendum questions heading to voters in April are about timely, significant policy issues.

Under the bail reform amendment, judges would be able to consider the “totality of the circumstances” in setting bail— including the seriousness of the crime, previous convictions of the accused and the need to protect the community from serious harm.

Currently, they can use only one factor: the likelihood a defendant will show up to his court date.

The issue took center stage in the wake of the Waukesha Christmas Parade massacre in which a career violent criminal drove his SUV into the parade, killing six and injuring scores more. He was free at the time from Milwaukee County custody on a mere $1,000 bail, released not long after being charged with using the same SUV to run over the mother of his child.

“Violent criminals should not be given unspoken approval by the system to repeatedly victimize our communities,” said State Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Delafield), who authored the proposed amendment. “Judges and law enforcement officers see the revolving door of arrests, low bail, release, and re-arrest, and they are asking for change.”

Evers, who Republican lawmakers believe would likely veto similar bail reform legislation, will have no say in the constitutional amendment question.

Republicans passed four constitutional amendment resolutions last session, including two election integrity measures. Evers has vetoed similar bills.

The latest advisory referendum question asks voters whether able-bodied, childless adults should be required to look for work in order to receive welfare benefits. It’s an important policy question as the governor and the Legislature begin work on Wisconsin’s next biennial budget.

“It’s so important to show the support of Wisconsin voters that if you’re going to receive workforce benefits that you need to apply for work,” said Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), who authored the measure with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). “An able-bodied adult should be working.”

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