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ACLU of Wisconsin's Chris Ott on the Threat to America's Democracy

Aug. 15, 2017
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Photo Credit: Dave Zylstra

Dedicated to challenging government abuses and protecting individual freedoms, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a steadfast advocate of free speech, religious freedom, citizens’ right to privacy and women’s rights. Its presence is not only necessary but comforting in these uncertain times. With myriad issues preying on the minds of many, ACLU of Wisconsin’s new executive director, Chris Ott (who replaced the long-serving Chris Ahmuty), shared his thoughts with the Shepherd Express about the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, LGBTQ rights, immigration and the role of his organization in preserving America’s democracy. Ott, a Wisconsin native, formerly served as communications director of the Massachusetts ACLU for 10 years and led the LGBTQ rights organization Fair Wisconsin in the early 2000s. 

What is your opinion of the Trump administration’s voter fraud investigation—specifically its information requests?

The real threat to our elections is voter suppression, not fraud, and we see that in Wisconsin in some really alarming ways. Wisconsin has its voter ID law, to which the ACLU has an ongoing challenge in court. We have seen some of the worst partisan gerrymandering. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken a case from Wisconsin to look at that very issue. And then, on top of those very serious threats, the Trump administration has made this grab for voter data. These are attacks on American democracy, and we say “Hell no!” to this kind of thing.

We really appreciated the way that the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) has clarified what Wisconsin law says about this. Under Wisconsin law, certain kinds of voter data are already made available, and they have been for some time, so that’s nothing new. But the WEC stopped there and explained that they don’t have the ability to produce more information than that.

Going into the 2018 elections, does this raise red flags?

Yes, absolutely. The so-called “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” is a complete sham. It appears to be designed to sell this lie that Donald Trump’s been telling that the reason he lost the popular vote by almost three million votes had something to do with voter fraud, and there’s just no evidence of that.

In addition to that, he actually put in charge of this commission Kris Kobach, Secretary of State of Kansas, who some people call the king of voter suppression. It’s extremely troubling what they’re doing, and we have to stop that. This commission, to me, is like if we asked Russian identity thieves to run American credit reporting bureaus.

Are we seeing rollback with protections for LGBTQ individuals—specifically regarding school-age youth?

Well, fortunately we haven’t seen a lot of that yet in a formal way. However, there are some real threats that we need to keep an eye on. Some of the things we have seen have been steps back for the protection of transgender students. Barack Obama’s Justice Department had done some very positive things in that regard, and the Trump administration has walked back from those. It turned out to be kind of a PR stunt—allowing religious organizations to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others on the basis of their religious beliefs. What they ended up putting out there was more just a kind of piece of rhetoric than actual policy changes. But still, we need to watch that. And, of course, the courts are very important—especially the make-up of the U.S. Supreme Court. At least in terms of marriage equality, we made a major breakthrough two years ago when we won that nationwide. But one thing we say at the ACLU is that the battles never stay won, so we need to guard that one, too. 

And then there is the issue that we never resolved in most places, and that is workplace discrimination. In too many places in the country, it is still legal for employers to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and despite the threats that we face, we need to keep pushing forward to put protections in place to prevent that kind of discrimination.

Which issues do you feel are being ignored by the media and the public?

From the ACLU’s standpoint, the threat to civil liberties and civil rights that we’ve seen since the Trump administration moved into the White House and during the campaign last year have actually been a wakeup call, I think. It’s taken a lot of people, including people in media, out of complacency. I think that there has been, in general, pretty good coverage of the threats that we face, but I guess maybe the problem now is [that] there are just so many of them. 

The New York Times recently reported that since President Trump has taken office more than 65,000 undocumented immigrants have been arrested, and agents are encouraged to arrest undocumented immigrants without serious criminal records. Is there any recourse for this? Where do you see this going?

It’s hard to talk in any detail about whether there’s any recourse in the case of at least 65,000 people; each case might be unique. That said, the ACLU has fought the crackdown on immigrants without serious criminal records since even before the Trump administration. During the Obama administration, for example, so-called “mandatory detention” was used to detain immigrants with relatively minor prior convictions and to put them into deportation proceedings. The ACLU has successfully fought back against that. The case that I have the most familiarity with comes from Massachusetts, where I used to work, called Gordon v. Johnson. 

On a somewhat related note, the ACLU of Wisconsin recently sent letters to sheriffs in every Wisconsin county, filing open records requests to find out what ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has asked them to do and to advise them of their options.

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