The shameful undermining of the peaceful transfer of power

Sometimes when elections are over, there’s admiring talk about how our country transfers power peacefully.

But while we’ve had no violent coups, this year that shining system has been profoundly undermined.

You see, for the peaceful transfer of power to be meaningful, the underlying expectation is that institutions don’t change in any fundamental way before the next elected official gets there.

Limiting the powers and adding constraints to an institution or office before turning it over to the people who won the legitimate right to control it next is just wrong.

It would be like allowing a neighbor to use your camp for brief time, only to come back to live in it and finding the porch you loved was torn off and other remodeling made it impossible to seat the whole family together at supper time. These weren’t cosmetic changes, like painting it some color you hate (which would be bad enough), but structural transformations that affected the basic usability of the property.

But in 2018, in some states, after voters rejected Republicans, legislatures changed the power of institutions before transferring power.

Opponents of an extraordinary session bill submitted by Wisconsin Republican legislators gather for a rally outside the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, on Dec. 3. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker lost his reelection bid to Democrat Tony Evers. In response, the GOP-controlled legislature passed legislation limiting the incoming governor’s powers.

Among the many transformations were taking away the incoming governor’s power over an economic development board, restricting the governor’s power to request program changes from the federal government and making it impossible for Evers to remove Wisconsin from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act.

Wisconsin Republicans, who who continue to benefit from extreme gerrymandering, didn’t even pretend that they were seeking a better way to run government. Indeed, it was clear that Republican legislators in Wisconsin enacted changes to thwart the incoming governor’s policy agenda, which voters had just ratified.

In arguing for institutional changes, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said, “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”

As former Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican, observed, “It appears completely political, [like] a power grab.” Moreover, said McCallum, “It’s not done for the right reason. It is not transparent. It is not a good way to create public policy.”

In another move to lock in their power, the Wisconsin legislature limited early voting, with Speaker Vos suggesting Republicans would have had “a clear majority” if voters in big population centers were taken “out of the state election formula.”

Wisconsin is not the only state where the peaceful transfer of power was undermined.

In Michigan, Republicans lost the governorship and the secretary of state and attorney general’s offices but, in part due to gerrymandering, retained a legislative majority. Before the new governor could take office and have the power to veto legislation, the lame duck legislature gave itself control over the state’s positions in lawsuits and restricted the secretary of state’s purview over campaign finance law. Like Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina, Michigan Republicans made voting harder in ways that especially hit Democratic-leaning groups.

What’s happening now in Wisconsin and Michigan mirrors actions taken two years ago when power was to be transferred in North Carolina. As journalist Tara Golshan described it, “the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a series of bills that pulled [incoming Democratic governor Roy] Cooper’s ability to make key cabinet appointments without their approval, drastically cut the size of Cooper’s administration, and changed the Board of Elections so that Republicans would control it in election years. They ensured lawsuits had to first go through the Republican-controlled appeals court, before the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court.”

It’s normal for institutions to fight each other for powers. Indeed, such competitiveness is built into our constitutional system.

But after losing policy arguments at the ballot box, grabbing power by transforming institutions and making voting harder for one’s political opponents is destructive of our political norms.

Our political structures aren’t owned by one party. It’s shameful to brazenly trash them for political gain.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.