Wisconsin politicians are scrambling to catch up to the massive change in public opinion on the issue of abortion. The most recent Marquette Law School Poll found 90% of people polled in the state now favor allowing women to have abortions if she is the target of incest or rape.
That is a startling 90% reality that even hard-right candidates like Tim Michels have had to accommodate. Late in the campaign, Michels just did a complete flop on the “no exceptions” stand that he has always has held.
The Republican’s dramatic reversal comes five weeks before the election Nov. 8 for governor between him and incumbent Democrat Gov. Tony Evers, who has always been pro-choice.
Michels pointed out in his about-face interview that we live in a representative democracy. So, he said, if the Republican-controlled legislature puts a bill on his desk as governor that creates the two exemptions, he would sign it.
Equally dramatic was the recent statement by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson saying he supports the rape and incest exceptions to the state’s 1849 law banning abortion, but should happen through a non-binding “direct referendum.” That’s another major reversal.
They both undoubtedly took note of a recent referendum in Kansas where 59% of voters protected constitutional abortion rights.
Interestingly, Gov. Evers also called for a referendum on the abortion issue. He wants a binding referendum, which led Republican legislative leaders to immediately reject his proposition.
The whole subject of referenda is most timely because they are a tool for overriding deep partisan divides in the country and states. Kansans now know what the law is in their in their state, and they know it is supported by a big majority of the people.
The partisan debate over abortion has been going on for more than 50 years. As I have written before, I had to stop publishing letters to the editor in the West Bend Daily News 50 years ago because the editorial pages had become overwhelmed by the letters for and against allowing abortion. Everything that could be said about the issue had been said.
That’s not true today. The forever debate and divisions over pro-choice and pro-life policies escalated when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a long-time compromise on the issue formed by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. That decision by the conservative majority on the U.S. court has proved unpopular because it flies in the face of where public opinion has moved to.
Michels and Johnson also had to be cognizant that the latest Marquette Law Poll showed a continuing high opposition — 61% — to the high court’s right wing decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
No issue has been more divisive in this country than abortion, and there is no end in sight to the righteousness of huge blocks of Americans on both sides of the issue. Binding referenda could supersede those divisions. The general population of voters would get to make the decision on what law will prevail, not politicians or the courts.
In Switzerland, direct democracy via referenda is the prevailing method for resolving the difficult issues. We need to take a page from their wisdom.
Other issues could also be resolved if the voters had an opportunity to express their voices to directly form a majority.
Republicans called Evers’ position a political stunt. That’s a cheap shot. Why do Republicans oppose referenda? Obviously, they must want to keep power and control for themselves. Yet both sides of the political equation have demonstrated they cannot work toward compromise to find pragmatic solutions to major issues.
As one example, if it were up to the voters as a whole, Wisconsin would approve much more funding for conservation projects across the state. They would support heavy research on the deteriorating condition of the Great Lakes, our most important natural resource, and other protections. They would quickly approve, for instance, $20 million for a new research vessel at UW-Milwaukee.
Polls always show that two-thirds to three-quarters of Wisconsin voters support conservation and environment protections.
Binding referenda for local school expansions and bigger operating budgets have long been part of the Wisconsin political landscape. Some pass; some fail, but when the results come in, no one can argue with the will of the majority voters.
In short, putting basic issues directly in front of the voters is a system that dampens political strife. Quite simply, they work to cohere our society.
What can you do about it? You can ask every candidate who appears on your ballot whether they support binding referenda. If they say “yes,” you have a winner.