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Carrol and Nancy, right, Spencer turn in their absentee ballots to poll workers Mary Detert and Donna Miller, left, at Norman Clayton Park during the Democracy in the Park event Saturday. Photo Sept. 26, 2020. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Framing the stakes in the 2020 election in stark terms, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders declared last week, “This is not just an election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy — and democracy must win.”

Sanders was not engaging in hyperbole. He was speaking a truth that was evident to everyone who has heard President Trump attack the basic infrastructure and the basic values of the processes by which Americans elect their leaders. Trump is seeking to undermine the systems by which ballots are cast and counted, and he refuses to say whether he will respect the results of an election that polls suggest he is likely to lose.

The president’s casual disregard for American democracy betrays the truth about this pathetic man. Though he swore an oath to defend the Constitution, Trump has no regard for the sacrifices that have been made over 244 years to secure the blessings of liberty. He is interested only in extending his power. And there is mounting evidence that he — and his supporters — will stop at nothing in their relentless assault on the underpinnings of what Trump fears most of all: a free and fair election in which the American people cast their ballots in high enough numbers to sweep him from office.

“Trump's strategy to delegitimize this election and to stay in office if he loses is not complicated,” Sanders said. “Finding himself behind in many polls, he is attempting massive voter suppression. He and his Republican colleagues are doing everything they can to make it harder and harder for people to vote.”

But Trump cannot do this alone. He needs willing accomplices.

Unfortunately, he has them in the leadership of the Republican Party of Wisconsin and the legal henchmen who carry out its dirty work.

This is not news. Wisconsin Republicans have been at war with voting rights for years — gerrymandering legislative district lines, enacting restrictive voter ID laws and seeking to limit early voting as part of an endless effort to disenfranchise voters who might not cast their ballots for unpopular GOP contenders.

But we got a real taste of the disdain that Trump’s errand boys have for the electorate last week, when they tried to shut down Madison’s Democracy in the Park project.

Organized by Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl to make it easier for Madisonians to learn about registering to vote, casting absentee ballots and otherwise participating in one of the most hotly-contested elections in American history, the project deployed poll workers to 206 neighborhood and community parks. Voters were invited to drop off their absentee ballots, which poll workers made sure were properly sealed to prevent tampering and then delivered to the clerk’s office.

Democracy in the Park was entirely nonpartisan, welcoming and accessible and, perhaps thanks to ideal early fall weather, quite popular. A steady stream of Madisonians showed up on Saturday to get questions answered and ballots delivered. Even more voters are expected to participate this coming Saturday, when “Democracy in the Park” continues from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Who could possibly object to taking the voting process to the people in a safe and fair manner? Wisconsin’s Republicans.

Last Friday, as the effort was about to kick off, Witzel-Behl received a “cease-and-desist letter” from a lawyer for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester. The letter claimed Democracy in the Park was an “illegal" event and threatened that ballots collected by poll workers would be challenged and potentially invalidated.

There were no legal grounds for the claim. Fitzgerald and Vos were simply engaging in a voter suppression scheme that they hoped would scare voters away from participating.

Madison City Attorney Michael Haas was not intimidated. He announced that the city would proceed with Democracy in the Park and that absentee ballots would be processed pursuant to Wisconsin statutes. He also noted in a letter to the lawyer for Fitzgerald and Vos, “All voters are welcome to participate and observe the process which is designed to bring the entire community together to participate in democracy. I trust that is a goal you and your clients can support.”

Unfortunately, robust and functional democracy is not the goal of President Trump and Trump-supporting Republicans like Vos and Fitzgerald. Why? Because they recognize that free and fair elections pose the greatest threat to their desperate ambitions.

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