Tuesday, July 8, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Most of the Get Out the Vote organizational promotions and media stories in Wisconsin have focused on the big November showdown for governor where Mary Burke, still largely a newcomer, is running neck and neck in polling against GOP Gov. Scott Walker, who thinks he’s famous enough to be president.

Additionally on November 4 the state Senate is within shouting distance of being won back by the Democrats, who could also make gains in the Assembly.  The state attorney general’s seat could also be taken by a Democrat depending on who emerges on top in the August 12 primary. 

August 12 means Milwaukee can put in a real lawman,
 Christopher Moews, to replace Clarke the media clown.
Yet there is a curious failure of media attention over that August 12 primary a month away, though the “big tent” party has some major primary decisions.  How feisty should  the winners be? How accommodating in bending even if  not breaking, how capable, how progressive, how cautious? The choices for Democrats are vital not just four months down the road but on their own – in Milwaukee the primary pretty much decides the next sheriff, a repeat contest from a terrible year for real Democrats,  2010,  with likely different results.

Unlike states like Virginia and Mississippi where primary fury makes national headlines, the Wisconsin primary is trudging along unnoticed and little discussed.

This is shameful inattention. Because despite the horrors of holding a primary in August rather than the after Labor Day scheduling of the past, voting is actually easier. Perhaps in conciliation for the awkward timing, the law lets you vote right now with minimal effort, and from your home.  Didn’t know?  Well, it’s high time someone told you.

Given Wisconsin’s traditional high turnout of voters over six decadesthe  anticipated low results of  this primary could be a  pitiful historic embarrassment. It’s even more surprising given the widespread anger over the gridlock in politics – but that speaks volumes about widespread complacency. Blame the media, the  power of big money to chill election turnout as futile, blame how Americans take for granted  the core of democracy – voting.  But look in the mirror as you are assigning blame.  Wisconsin voters, not seeing a lot of headlines to interrupt their summer doldrums, are failing to recognize the value of the  primary process in shaping their own political future.

Future articles will  deal with the nature of  these contests (who’s on first and so forth), the consequence of gerrymandering, the new games played with social media, the flat lies or subtle mistruths  that one candidate tells about another in the primary even when they pretend to be in the same party. 

But this story about Aug. 12 is mainly explanatory and to my surprise seems much  needed.

The choice of August for a primary smells of partisanship but the main reason is a federal law passed under Ronald Reagan and improved in 2009 to the point of refusing waivers of the election scheduling to states like Wisconsin.

It is the MOVE Act (Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment) to assure timely receipt of complete primary ballots for overseas military and citizens.  It was resisted by Wisconsin with waivers  but agreed to in an expanded version in 2010.  (Wisconsin actually then extended that time frame for state elections to 47 days from 45 for absentee voters  at home as well as abroad).

What lends an odor of partisanship is not just our gridlock times but how eager the Republicans were to depart their normal Grinch posture to play footsie with the feds on this one. Especially since such overseas absentee ballots hardly carry decisive weight in these elections. 

Even after the GOP played friends with our troops by agreeing with the consent decree and rescheduling the primary, they went on attack in 2011-2013  against the parents,grandparents and siblings of those far-flung uniforms – the local voters who could make a genuine difference: minorities, students and elderly who lacked driver license photo ID. They were the target of that infamous voter ID bill that will not be in place for August or November. (It was rejected as blatantly unconstitutional this year  by a federal court and is likely to remain rejected on the appeals road since there is no evidence it addresses any real problem but clearly was inspired by the growth of minority voters.)

One result – it is easier to vote on August 12 via absentee ballot for everyone.

People who have voted in the past have more time to vote absentee – in fact, any ballot mailed (postmarked) by Aug. 12 qualifies.  For first-time voters who need to register before being allowed at the polls, the Government Accountability Board has provided an instruction page and they can even register online at myvote.wi.gov though new voters will have to provide their birth information and address.

The absentee ballot form  itself to sent to municipal clerks  can actually  be downloaded from the GAB in English, Spanish or Hmong.  

Beyond that, regular Wisconsin voters may also request that a ballot be sent to them by sending an e-mail or fax to their municipal clerk. This request must be made no later than 5 p.m. on the Thursday before the election in order for an absentee ballot to be SENT to you. 

(There is one change under the new law for absentee ballots. Previously, voters who changed their minds could go to the polling place and make a new vote on Election Day, and their absentee ballot would not be counted. But this is no longer an option.)

This primary is particularly important to the Democrats in many contests, even in districts where a Democrat is almost guaranteed to win and several in one party are competing aggressively for the same berth. 

The party out of power has a conflagration of strong possibilities to regain ground in November – so that has gotten the most media attention.  Yet  it is  voters in the primary who are going to determine the tone of that voice – what sort of Democrats will they pick to  work together and with the opposition?  

Think about that. The basics have changed and August shapes the nature of that change. In a strong democracy, voting is a habit and the primary is the perfect time to get the habit. Many Walker opponents, not just unions, are blindly looking toward November   as their “correction’ toward a do-something government, without weighing how much August in many districts will determine the tenor of that correction. The state contests are  no longer built around Act 10 on one side and distaste for the recall process on the other. It’s about competence in office and it radiates up and down the line of the legislature and major elected offices beyond the governor’s mansion.

Many Republicans – usually eager to gather their troops around primaries – are downplaying this one or playing mischief.  They  sense some troubled waters based on the governor’s poor economic record. Even if once enamored of Walker’s policies and tactics, their faithful supporters can no longer keep their heads in the sand given his self-centered behavior and dismal track record.

Not when Illinois and Minnesota are attracting more major businesses than Wisconsin. Not when even conservative school districts are  balking over the loss of quality and continuity, the reliance on big money and the tired  sound-bite promises of a brighter future if they only wait. It is all sounding hollower to them than to diehard Democrats.  

Aside from a few contests of their own on their side of the primary, the GOP will try to back the most pliable Democrats in districts where the GOP has no chance.  They can  also play up as dissent some genuine conflicts in the Democratic ranks, as voters figure out not only the best candidates but their own emotional state. Do they want flame-throwing fighters, duck and weave accommodators  or genuinely smart and determined boxers? 

This is where the citizenry has to roll up its sleeves and dig for the realities. Because at the doors and in electronic and mail come-ons, every candidate sounds smooth and sensible and makes a good case for how hard they will work for you. Intelligent voters need to pay attention and look behind the curtain.  The primary is one place where voters can deeply influence and actually clarify the issues and personalities heading into November.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, then for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran  Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he  became the newspaper’s  senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news.From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as  the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with its still operative archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com

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