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Editorial: Ron Johnson spouts his worst idea yet

Wisconsin’s conspiratorial U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has spouted plenty of garbage in recent months — that mouthwash has been proven to kill COVID-19, that unvaccinated people are being put “basically into internment camps,” that climate change is “bullsh-t.”

But the Oshkosh Republican’s worst idea among many doozies went like this: He wants his partisan pals at the statehouse in Madison to take over the administration of Wisconsin elections.

Republicans who control the Legislature have already gerrymandered voting districts in Wisconsin to give conservative candidates an unfair advantage in elections. Johnson isn’t satisfied with that because the rigged maps won’t help him. He has to run statewide for his U.S. Senate seat.

So Johnson wants his colleagues to go further. He called on Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and other GOP leaders to all but count the votes following elections so Republican candidates are more assured of victory.

Republicans in other states are similarly trying to seize control of election administration. They hope to decide close races in their favor by manipulating voting rules before and after Election Day. If a Democrat narrowly wins, for example, just throw out some of the Democrat’s votes on a subjective technicality.

Wisconsin should reject and prevent such devious attempts to undermine our democracy.

Johnson recently accused the Wisconsin Elections Commission of “systematically” violating laws for running the 2020 election, and he suggested that Vos and Co. unilaterally usurp the WEC’s powers, regardless of what Democratic Gov. Tony Evers might think.

“There’s no mention of the governor in the Constitution” when it comes to running elections, Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It says state legislatures. And so if I were running the joint — and I’m not — I would come out and I would just say, ‘We’re reclaiming our authority. Don’t listen to WEC anymore. Their guidances are null and void.’”

The WEC is far from perfect. Though its staff is professional and nonpartisan, the commissioners who oversee that staff are split into two partisan sides: three Republicans and three Democrats. Sometimes this forces bipartisan agreement on election rules that both parties can accept.

But often it doesn’t. A recent State Journal analysis showed that commissioners deadlocked 3-3 on important decisions 32 times during the 2020 elections. Split votes can leave local election officials and candidates without clear guidance on how to properly handle ballots and run campaigns.

The WEC is a poor substitute for its predecessor, the Government Accountability Board, which was overseen by retired judges who were nonpartisan and insulated from state politics as much as possible. With sweeping bipartisan support following scandals more than a decade ago, Republicans including Vos created the GAB. It did a fine job of staying above the political fray and issuing clear and fair decisions.

But when Vos didn’t like some of the rulings the neutral GAB made, Vos and other Republicans replaced the GAB with the WEC, whose partisan members are appointed by legislative leaders and the governor. Now Vos is complaining that the WEC isn’t subservient enough because it doesn’t always do what he wants.

Enter Johnson’s bad idea.

Not only would putting the politicians in charge of elections allow them to further rig the rules for voting and campaigning in their favor, it also would destroy public trust in fair elections. Wisconsin needs neutral or at least balanced referees overseeing our democracy — not participants in elections setting election rules on the fly to help them get reelected. That’s obviously a conflict of interest.

Johnson and Vos have incessantly run down Wisconsin’s solid election system to try to appease former President Donald Trump, their failed presidential candidate who still refuses — more than a year later — to concede defeat. So Johnson’s latest ploy is no surprise.

To his credit, Vos downplayed Johnson’s proposed power grab, saying Vos didn’t know if the Legislature had the authority to follow Johnson’s advice.

Yet Vos recklessly called for the resignation of Meagan Wolfe, the WEC’s nonpartisan administrator. Vos faulted Wolfe and the WEC for allowing shut-ins at nursing homes last year to vote without special voting deputies on site, as required by law. Instead, the bipartisan WEC — which includes a former GOP lawmaker appointed by Vos — agreed to let these frail residents vote by absentee ballot without voting deputies present. They did so for a very good reason: Wisconsin was in the depths of the worst pandemic in a century. Many nursing homes wouldn’t let the special voting deputies enter their facilities because of public health restrictions.

That was a reasonable decision that neither Johnson nor Vos objected to when the WEC voted at a public meeting last year to allow the exemption. Johnson and Vos are only complaining now to further appease Trump, whose support they think they need to stay in power.

Johnson faces a difficult reelection next fall if he runs, so he’s searching for every possible advantage.

Wisconsin should reject his self-serving call for partisan-tilted election administration. Instead, voters should question Johnson’s fitness for office if he seeks a third term.

– Wisconsin State Journal

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