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Keep Our Republic launches in Wisconsin to defend democracy, protect the vote


Keep Our Republic launches in Wisconsin to defend democracy, protect the vote

Jun 05, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Ruth Conniff
Keep Our Republic launches in Wisconsin to defend democracy, protect the vote
Voting rights activists and others gather at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Keep Our Republic, a bipartisan group founded in 2020 to shore up confidence in U.S. elections, is announcing the launch of its Wisconsin chapter on Monday.

The group’s creed, according to its mission statement, is: “Let all eligible voters vote. Let all votes be counted. Let the vote count stand.”

Chapters in Pennsylvania and Michigan as well as Wisconsin are focused on informing the public about elections, voting rights and the democratic process in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.

Led by a national board that includes former Colorado Republican Congressman Tim Wirth and longtime Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt, on its website Keep Our Republic pledges to “to discover, highlight and help to prevent an array of extraordinary threats to American democracy, strengthen democratic guardrails, and educate the public before it is too late.”

Former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton
Former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton

Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, a member of the group’s Wisconsin advisory council, says Keep Our Republic grew out of a bipartisan, national recognition of “very real threats” to U.S. democracy and is working “in places where it’s really urgent, like it is in Wisconsin.” 

Why Wisconsin?

“Think Gableman,” says Lawton, referring to the former state Supreme Court justice who was fired after leading a years-long, taxpayer-financed investigation that failed to prove claims that the 2020 election was stolen. 

In deeply divided Wisconsin, Keep Our Republic wants to help usher in a return to values that prized civic engagement, functional government, and well-run elections, Lawton says. 

The bipartisan nature of the group is critical to its mission of rebuilding trust, Lawton says. The 12-member Wisconsin advisory council includes former Assembly members from opposite sides of the aisle David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) and Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) as well as former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. 

“We don’t agree on many things,” says Lawton. “But we agree we have a moment of fragility in our democracy and have to put our shoulders to the wheel.”

Bernier, the group’s Wisconsin state director, says she was skeptical when she was first approached about leading a Keep Our Republic state chapter.

Keep Our Republic launches in Wisconsin to defend democracy, protect the vote
Former State Sen. Kathy Bernier

“Well, this was kinda created by Democrats, basically,” she told her friend, former state Sen. Dale Kooyenga, when he texted her about the effort. But she was persuaded by Kooyenga and Keep Our Republic founder Ari Mittleman, a former U.S. Senate staffer from Pennsylvania, that the group was committed to bipartisanship.

A former county clerk, Bernier made headlines by brushing back the claims of election deniers and criticizing the Legislature’s election investigation led by Gableman under the supervision of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

After deciding not to run again, the 12-years veteran of the Legislature was in Texas “enjoying a couple of months of non-blizzardy weather,” when Kooyenga texted her about Keep Our Republic. The more she learned about the group and its mission the more interested she became. 

Bernier still talks to constituents who are convinced that the 2020 election was stolen. She says she is 99% sure she can never convince “a devout election denier when it comes to 2020.”

“I have a couple who’ve called me – both computer programmers – and I’ve been totally unsuccessful explaining anything to them.” She has spent hours telling people about Wisconsin’s system for checking and rechecking its paper ballots. “I say, ‘How can you hack paper?’”

Part of Bernier’s mission at Keep Our Republic will be to raise awareness of the security of Wisconsin’s decentralized election system.

“If they’ve closed their minds to facts, there’s nothing we can do,” she says. 

Mike Lindell, the MyPillow executive who rallied election conspiracy theorists around the country, once claimed that 17,000 ballots were altered in Wisconsin’s Clark County — a claim Bernier has often heard repeated. “No. 1, the clerk there said we don’t even have that many voters,” says Bernier. “And No. 2, it’s not possible because they canvassed the results.”

Explaining the technical details of vote-counting doesn’t convince hardcore conspiracy theorists. “Some people refuse to hear what I’m saying,” says Bernier.

But as Keep Our Republic plans to host 10-12 seminars on voting in Wisconsin over the next year, the group is reaching out to clergy, police, school superintendents and other community leaders. “Those are the people I want to bring in,” Bernier says. 

Meetings with local law enforcement will also focus on protecting polling places from “extraordinary threats,” she says, “such as a fire — deliberate or indeliberate.”

Many Republicans are ready to move on from Trump’s claims about election theft, and from Donald Trump himself, says Bernier.

“We had many, many Republicans tell me, ‘Thank you for standing up. Thank you for speaking out,’” she says. When she criticized the Legislature’s focus on election fraud, her constituents supported her, saying, “We need to move on and this isn’t the answer to the problem of we don’t have a Republican president.”

At the same time, Bernier thinks outside groups that donated money to help with election administration during the pandemic (the focus of election investigators’ obsession with so-called “Zuckerbucks” grants to help with local elections) raised legitimate concerns, as did events like “Democracy in the Park,” which allowed voters to cast their ballots in big, outdoor spaces when COVID-19 was a major worry. 

The perception that something was amiss is legitimate, she says, even if there was no actual fraud involved. “We don’t need third party entities coming in,” says Bernier, adding, “As soon as you start getting creative with norms and laws in the state, it calls things into question. Just follow the rules. Do it how it’s always been done.” 

“That’s my opinion,” she quickly clarifies — not the official position of Keep Our Republic. 

Right-wing protesters gather outside the Maricopa County Elections Department on Nov. 4, 2020, demanding that all ballots for Donald Trump be counted. Inside the building, election workers were busy counting hundreds of thousands of ballots. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror
Right-wing protesters gather outside the Maricopa County Elections Department on Nov. 4, 2020, demanding that all ballots for Donald Trump be counted. Inside the building, election workers were busy counting hundreds of thousands of ballots. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Overall, Bernier perceives the paranoia and outrage that dominated Republican politics after the 2020 election as dying down. 

“I think it’s getting better,” she says. “Last time I talked to one of my computer programmer guys he said, ‘I’ve always liked you and defended you.’ Even though he said he knew the election could be hacked.”

The biggest threat Bernier sees is “the same thing happening again, where the election results are not accepted, legislators are calling to decertify — the Legislature itself saying it’s going to call back electoral votes.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to issue a ruling in the much-watched Moore v. Harper case, which could entail a sweeping interpretation of the Constitution known as the “independent state legislature” theory, giving state legislatures the power to regulate elections without interference from state courts. Keep Our Republic has taken sides against the idea that state legislatures could take it upon themselves to declare a winner in a presidential election.

“I can’t see even the Republican Legislature as a whole taking up decertifying an election,” Bernier says, “because if they thought they could do it they would have done it already.”

Still, Bernier is an outlier. Most Republican officeholders both in Wisconsin and nationally, have been reluctant to stand  up to Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election. Even U.S. Congressman Mike Gallagher, who wept on national television, decrying the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, rejected calls for Trump’s impeachment and refused to hold Steve Bannon in contempt for his role in instigating the Jan. 6 attack.

“That’s why you don’t see current officeholders on the board,” says Lawton. “They fall prey to the notion that ‘these policy issues are so important’ and ‘I’ll lose my leadership position’ or ‘I’ll lose my committee chairmanship.’”

“It’s a profound disappointment to me when I see people who know better who can’t find their way to a level of action consistent with what they know,” she adds.

Lawton is excited about getting people at the community level to focus on election protection all over the state. 

Among the threats Keep Our Republic is training local communities to watch out for, she says, are “abusive recounts, unnecessary delays in processing ballots, threats to election officials, and partisan poll watchers.”

Instead of training up teams to protect poll workers from harassment and intimidation, the group is “teaching communities how to do that — understanding the threat. Putting it in the hands of people where they live.”