Seven years ago, at age 73, Sheila Plotkin stepped onto the glossy tiles of the Wisconsin State Capitol with a protest sign in hand and her husband by her side. She saw a sea of law enforcement.
Due to increased security, police officers escorted the couple and other members of the public to the Senate. There, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald was signing a contempt order for 14 Democratic senators who fled the state to avoid voting for the controversial budget repair bill — later called Act 10 — that all but ended collective bargaining rights for public sector employees in Wisconsin.
As Plotkin, a retired teacher, and her husband left, the elevator unexpectedly stopped at the second floor. Plotkin said an officer stepped forward and took their photo.
The nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.
Plotkin told protesters gathered outside that she felt like she was in a “czar’s castle” being escorted by “the palace guard.”
“I was so angry. I was so distraught,” Plotkin recalled. “I said, ‘This is not my Wisconsin,’ and then I broke down and started to cry.”
Since that moment in March 2011 — after weeks of protests that drew national attention with crowds estimated at up to 100,000 people — Plotkin found it distressing to see Wisconsin’s democracy being “nibbled away.”
“Most people believe government no longer represents the people,” Plotkin said. “It represents campaign donors, special interests, the wealthy.”
Plotkin is among the growing segment of Americans questioning the strength of democracy. A recent poll commissioned by the bipartisan Democracy Project found that over two-thirds of Democrats, Republicans and independents feel very or somewhat concerned about the current state of American democracy.
The Edelman Trust Barometer, which has been gauging public faith in institutions in the United States and elsewhere for 18 years, said 2018 saw the “steepest, most dramatic general population decline the Trust Barometer has ever measured,” with just 33 percent of the public expressing trust in the government — down 14 points from 2017.
“The public’s confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership is now fully undermined and has been replaced with a strong sense of fear, uncertainty and disillusionment,” according to Edelman, a global communications marketing firm.
Aside from voting, Wisconsin residents have a limited number of remedies when they disagree with their elected leaders. In some other states, voters can initiate and even overturn decisions made by elected officials. Wisconsin voters do not have those options, but they have one potentially potent weapon: recall.
Eighteen other states allow for citizens to recall their elected officials. Just 10 states, including Wisconsin, include provisions for recalling any elected member of government. The others have specific stipulations, such as Illinois, where only the governor can be recalled.
That is how Orville Seymer got his start in political activism in 2002. Seymer was part of Citizens for Responsible Government, which formed after news reports revealed that hundreds of Milwaukee County employees, including then-County Executive Tom Ament, stood to collectively earn up to $900 million in additional pension payments.
The citizens group launched a series of recall elections against Ament and county board members who had voted for the so-called backdrop payments. When Seymer and his compatriots hit the streets to gather 73,000 signatures in 60 days to recall Ament, the response was overwhelming: 182,957 signatures in just 28 days.
“Something like this had never hit Wisconsin before. It was wild pandemonium,” Seymer said.
The scandal eventually forced Ament and seven board members out of office and launched now-Gov. Scott Walker into the county executive’s seat. In 2012, Walker himself was recalled, but a majority voted to retain him as governor.
Unlike Plotkin, some political observers in Wisconsin say the power of the individual is actually getting stronger. Brett Healy, president of the conservative-leaning think tank the MacIver Institute, said there are numerous organized and well-funded groups for Democrats, Republicans and special interests that people can join to exert influence.
“If you care about democracy, your country, your state, you’re going to join with others and make your opinions heard,” Healy said.
In Wisconsin, the percentage of residents saying they strongly or somewhat agree that the government is run by “a few big interests looking out for themselves” has gone from 79 percent in 2013 to 84 percent in 2015, according to surveys by the Marquette University Law School Poll. Results showed that Democrats and independents were consistently more pessimistic than Republicans on this point.
A 2017 Marquette survey also found that just 47 percent of Wisconsin residents polled said they trusted state government “to do what is right” either “just about always” or “most of the time.”
Former state Sen. Tim Cullen believes several factors have led to the weakening of citizen power. He cited hyper-partisanship, the need to raise significant campaign donations and officials’ desires to be re-elected.
A Democrat from Janesville, Cullen served in the Senate in the 1970s and ’80s and again from 2011 to 2015. After he returned to public life, Cullen said he noticed that legislators seem to act primarily in allegiance to their parties in order to keep their jobs.
“The political system is rigged in a way that in their own self-interest of getting re-elected — which is an overwhelmingly important thing to most of them — it doesn’t help them get re-elected to be working with the other party,” said Cullen, who served as majority leader during his first stint in the Legislature.
Jacob Stampen, a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor of educational leadership and policy analysis, said his research reveals a growing partisanship that has made state lawmakers more indebted to party bosses than to the public. Stampen has been tracking voting in the Wisconsin Legislature since 2003. His first analysis of voting was as a graduate student at UW-Madison in the mid-60s.
He said back then, Wisconsin politicians coalesced around ideas and not just party affiliation. He described it as a “healthy political system” in which lawmakers were “much more constituency-oriented.”
When he again started tracking every legislative vote in 2003, Stampen said he noticed a sharp increase in partisanship. He believes corporate influence has drowned out the interests of citizens.
“Overall, I conclude that in the 1980s and 1990s, Wisconsin’s political system became increasingly polarized, dependent on financial support from lobbyists, and corrupt,” Stampen said in a paper about Wisconsin legislative politics from 1966 to 2006.
Dale Schultz, a former Republican state senator, also observed that politicians are more attentive to big campaign donors than citizens. The public is frustrated, the former majority leader said, because elected officials “never take the time to listen to them or get to know them” — an exercise that would give citizens more influence by subjecting officials to questioning and examination.
Kathy Cramer, a UW-Madison professor of political science and author of a book about Walker’s rise in Wisconsin, said recent scholarship confirms that “policy decisions most closely correspond to the political leanings of the wealthiest people in the population, and not so much to other people.”
Kenneth Mayer, a UW-Madison professor of political science, said other states allow for more direct public input and responsiveness through initiatives and referenda in which citizens make laws directly. In all, 26 states have mechanisms that allow voters to propose laws through initiatives or overturn laws by popular referendum, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Wisconsin does not have an initiative process. And any referenda are initiated by governmental bodies — not citizens. A bipartisan bill to give Wisconsin voters the power of initiative and referendum was introduced in 2017 but failed to get a hearing.
Many citizens in other states are utilizing an initiative process to directly create legislation, most notably in the legalization of marijuana. Of the nine states that have now fully legalized marijuana, eight of them did so through an initiative process, and only one — Vermont — through the legislative process.
Plotkin, a retired teacher of 28 years who lives in McFarland, formed a citizens’ group, We, the Irrelevant, after the summer of 2015, when the Legislature voted in a surprise move to severely weaken the public records law by exempting key government records. This deeply unpopular move later was removed from the budget by Walker and the GOP legislative leaders.
The group uses public records requests to gauge the power of citizens to influence Wisconsin state government.
Plotkin began by examining three bills. One dissolved the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, the state’s ethics and campaign watchdog, replacing it with separate elections and ethics commissions with appointees of both parties.
A second bill exempted politicians from John Doe investigations, such as the one thrown out by the right-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court that had probed coordination between Walker’s campaign and conservative groups.
The third bill raised campaign contribution limits, allowed candidates to coordinate with so-called issue-ad groups and eliminated the requirement that campaign contributors list their employers.
“I began to ask myself, ’Who’s asking for these changes? Are citizens asking for this? Are they hearing from constituents saying ‘Get rid of the GAB’?” Plotkin said.
The short answer? No. The group found that Republicans who currently run the Legislature had received 6,215 letters, emails and phone calls against those three bills and 312 in favor. Despite the overwhelming public opposition, all three measures passed.
Robert Rolley, a retired Department of Natural Resources wildlife research biologist, said he has seen regular citizens lose influence to business interests since Walker took office.
“There is a long history in the DNR of listening to public input prior to making management decisions,” said Rolley, who worked at the agency for 25 years. “What has changed is which citizens the DNR Board and administration is interested in listening to.”
Plotkin said she fears many people feel they no longer have influence on government.
“Indifference is a killer of democracy, and I’m hoping if Donald Trump has done nothing else, he has awakened those people who never thought voting mattered. If he’s made enough of them angry, I hope they vote.”