Former Wisconsin governor, journalist team up to promote election trust

Wisconsin Alliance For Civic Trust headed by Scott McCallum and David Haynes

Poll worker Kathleen Krchnavek works the Olbrich Gardens polling site in Madison
Poll worker Kathleen Krchnavek works the Olbrich Gardens polling site in Madison, Wis., on Feb. 16, 2021. With political polarization reaching a fever pitch, front line election workers are reporting novel challenges and hostility that years ago had been unthinkable. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

Swing state. Purple state. 50-50 Battle ground state. It doesn’t matter how you describe it — over the next six months, Wisconsin is going to continue to be a key political player. 

And now a respected Republican and Democrat have joined forces to attempt to increase civic engagement while the politics continue to unfold. 

Former Republican Gov. Scott McCallum and former journalist David Haynes launched the Wisconsin Alliance for Civic Trust, or WisACT, on April 30 to “build bridges  across the political spectrum to prevent the erosion of public trust and the rise of political violence.”

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During a press conference Tuesday, McCallum and Haynes said they have a mutual desire to build a healthier society, regardless of political beliefs. 

Public trust in U.S. elections is rapidly declining. The growing distrust is fueled by voter disengagement, falsehoods, echo chambers, misrepresentations and disinformation, according to WisACT.

Haynes said there has always been political polarization, but it has gotten more toxic and has become worse than anything he’s seen in his 46 years as a journalist. 

“It’s not just us and them. It’s us or them,” Haynes said. “So we’ve made political enemies out of our political opponents, and I think that’s kind of a dangerous place to be.” 

David Haynes. Photo courtesy of Haynes

Haynes said as a result, good people are leaving public life. 

Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher announced he was leaving his congressional seat in April, before the end of his term. The Republican from Green Bay later gave more details, suggesting  he resigned because of death threats and swatting targeted at his family.

Haynes said that’s happening far too much. WisACT aims to stand up for people in public life and speak out against this type of threatening behavior, he said.

“I don’t hear anyone who says we should have more political intimidation in our system,” Haynes said. “No one wants this. And so what we need to do, I think, is provide a space for the good people of Wisconsin — the vast, vast majority who believe that we should have more civility in politics, and that threats and intimidation really have no place in our politics.”

McCallum warned that democracies don’t suddenly fall. He said the court system, legislature, election process and media all need to reestablished trust. 

Scott McCallum. Photo courtesy McCallum

WisACT is supported by The Carter Center, a nonprofit founded by former President Jimmy Carter that promotes peace, democracy and public health.

The Carter Center launched the program in five other states — Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona and Michigan.

McCallum, who was governor from 2001 to 2003 after serving as lieutenant governor for 14 years under Gov. Tommy Thompson, said the most important step is getting the community involved. 

“If we have people get involved and standing up for democracy, then we anticipate that we will be able to have a stronger voice than the extremists that are trying to take it down,” McCallum said. 

The group is planning training in media literacy and conflict resolution and webinars on polarization. Its first monthly Zoom meeting is May 29.

McCallum and Haynes hope Wisconsinites across the political spectrum will attend to discuss politics and also possible solutions to keep accurate, pro-democracy messaging civil.