My absentee ballot for this week’s Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election was unnervingly easy, with only two questions, three options for each—Republican, Democrat, or Independent. I read the instructions on the outer envelope at least five times, wondering if I’d missed something. Important: Use a #2 pencil or marking pen provided, the instructions urged. I scrounged around the supply closet of my office in Manhattan, wondering aloud if all pencils were #2. For good measure, I photocopied my Wisconsin license and stuffed it in the envelope along with my ballot. A coworker gladly signed as my witness and I hurried the sealed envelope to the mail, as if getting it to the clerk in Williams Bay would somehow give my vote the final say.
Throughout the day on June 5, I schizophrenically checked the New York Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and The Progressive for any news on exit polls; polling from the week leading up to the recall election had consistently put Republican Governor Scott Walker ahead of the challenger, Democrat Tom Barrett.
It’s impossible to question the energy of the Recall Walker movement. Why didn’t this translate to the polls?
Around 5 p.m. Eastern, my office phone rang—my Mom was waiting in line to vote. She’d never seen this many people at the village office before; I could hear the noisy chatter in the background. I asked her if she had any idea about how people were voting. “Are you kidding me,” she said, “in this town? Please.”
Williams Bay, with a population of just over 2,600, sits on Lake Geneva, about 20 minutes over the Illinois-Wisconsin border. Lake Geneva has several small towns built around it and the lake front property is prime real estate. After the great Chicago fire in 1871, many prominent members of society fled to Lake Geneva while their homes were being rebuilt. Politicians, entrepreneurs, and various other one-percenters have congregated there ever since. Walworth County is now a bastion of old money and staunch conservatism; the final results of the recall election showed 64.3% of the votes went to Walker, while Barrett received only 35.2%.
That night I wanted to believe that Barrett could still win. I held out hope even as I saw the numbers in Walker’s favor at 9:30pm, hoping that with only about 50% of precincts reporting, maybe they just hadn’t counted my own mighty absentee ballot yet.
Taking advantage of the new opportunities for outrageous political spending is an option, but is it the right one?
Of course we know now who won the race—the question now is how. It’s impossible to question the energy of the Recall Walker movement. Why hadn’t this hadn’t translated to the polls?
The day after the election I spoke to professor Rebecca Stephens from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, who had been very active in the Recall Walker campaign. For months she had volunteered with United Wisconsin and got certified to register new voters. She talked reverently about the intense dynamism she encountered in the week leading up to the election, going door-to-door in Portage County—one of only 12 counties in the state where Barrett won. I asked Stephens if she, too, had held on to hope that Barrett would still win, despite the polls that indicated otherwise. “I had hope that Barrett could still win because the energy was simply extraordinary,” she explained, “talking to people who shared how Walker’s policies were affecting them was extremely powerful.” She had encountered many people who had never voted before, but were registering this time because they felt so strongly about the negative effects Walker’s reforms are having on the state. Early last year, Walker’s Budget Repair Bill passed the state legislature and effectively eliminated the collective bargaining rights of most of Wisconsin’s 175,000 government employees.
At the same time, she explained, being so enmeshed in the political process “really brought home how many people really do feel disenfranchised by our political system.”
“The night before the election, I talked to a young African-American man who said, ‘I come from a community that’s often ignored—how will voting for Barrett or Walker be any different?’” Stephens recalled. That widespread feeling of powerlessness, coupled with Walker’s enormous fundraising advantage “did temper my optimism,” she said.
Reactions to the Dems’ loss in Wisconsin have mostly pointed to the spending discrepancies of the two campaigns—Walker out spent Barrett 7 to 1—but that may not be the whole story. Doug Henwood writes that such an explanation is just “too easy.” Democrats made mistakes, both on the regional and national levels. John Nichols writes in The Nation that Wisconsin was “let down by national Democratic players who never quite recognized the importance of the race, while the Republican National Committee and ‘independent’ groups on the right were deeply involved.”
We also have to question the effectiveness of moving protest energy into voting energy. Channeling a popular movement like the Wisconsin uprising into electoral politics can be like trying to explain why a joke is funny—if a priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar and you’re asking how they got there, I can guarantee no one is laughing anymore. The occupations in Madison last year were fueled by the vigor of its protestors. Going to an occupation feels good: you’re holding up a sign in the rotunda, you’re chanting, you’re part of a collective and can feel the strength in your numbers. Voting is a solitary activity, one that can feel somewhat anti-climactic, ineffectual, even errand-like.
The results of the recall election give those of us on the left much to examine—what can we learn from Wisconsin? Money talks in electoral politics, certainly, this is nothing new, though in the post-Citizens United world, it talks louder than ever before. Taking advantage of the new opportunities for outrageous political spending is one option (and the Walker campaign shows how effective this can be), but is it the right one? I believe, and many on the left will agree with me, that it is not.
The biggest question remaining in the wake of the recall elections is where does Wisconsin go from here. Everyone from organized labor to students to grizzly moms can offer up a different answer to this question. Issues such as the fight with unions over collective bargaining rights, and cut to public education are likely to come up in the next six months. “Though there’s definitely a sense of mourning here,” Stephens told me, “I do see a continued commitment to the fight for justice. The last year has amply illustrated the need for checks and balances, so keeping the Wisconsin Senate in Democratic hands through the November elections to prevent legislation being pushed through so quickly that the public can’t participate seems key.”
Walker was the first governor ever to survive a recall election. His victory is a warning against voter complacency no matter what the odds seem to be before an election. Everyone please pick up their #2 pencils.