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Noose cartoon controversy

On January 15th my “noose” cartoon was printed in the weekly Capital Times. As a result of right-wing backlash it was soon removed from the Capital Times website.

After some debate, the Capital Times editors agreed to run my rebuttal. It was printed and posted on February 5, 2020. The offending cartoon is still missing.

Below is the offending cartoon and Rick Esenberg’s reply.

Here is Rick Esenberg’s indignant Letter to the Editor:

Rick Esenberg: Cap Times’ noose cartoon was the worst kind of politics

If the American people reach a consensus on anything, it is our politics are too polarized. We falsely believe that every election is existential and while we all say that we love America, many of us seem to hate that half of the America who are on “the other side.”

How does this happen?

Neither side is free of blame, but a recent political cartoon by Mike Konopacki accompanying a column by Dave Zweifel in the Capital Times is instructive. Their target is a lawsuit filed by my organization, The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), which seeks to force the Wisconsin Elections Commission to take certain steps to deactivate outdated registrations of people who have moved from — and are no longer eligible to vote at — addresses at which they are registered. I am depicted as a hangman holding and surrounded by nooses. You can vote, I say, but only if you jump through some hoops. The unmistakable subtext is a lynching.

Our case does not seek to deny anyone the opportunity to vote. It is possible that a relatively small number of people who have not actually moved will have to return a prepaid postcard saying so or, if they fail to do that, re-register to vote online, by mail or at the polls on Election Day. But they will all get to vote. To say that what we are doing is somehow the moral or metaphorical equivalent of having a mob pull you from your home and hang you from a tree is fever swamp insanity. It turns a relatively technical disagreement about the trade-offs between the ease of voting and election integrity into an overwrought drama about voter suppression and the future of “democracy.” It trivializes real evil and portrays everyday political opponents as monsters.

It is this type of vile and disgusting hyperbole — far more than Russian bots or inscrutable “dog whistles” — that has us at each other’s throats. Before people like Zweifel and Konopacki engage in unctuous and performative throat clearing about social justice, they need — to paraphrase the left — to check their own hatred. It may just be that their enemy can be found in the mirror.

Let me explain what our case is about. Wisconsin participates in a consortium called the Elections Registration Information Center established in association with the Pew Charitable Trusts. ERIC, as it is known, uses data matching techniques to identify persons who appear to have moved from the addresses at which they are registered. Voters get on the ERIC “movers” list by providing an address other than the one they are registered at in an official government transaction. In other words, the source of the information is the voter.

The Wisconsin Elections Commissions agrees that the ERIC movers list is largely accurate. The overwhelming majority of voters who it identifies as having moved have, in fact, moved. As a result, they are no longer eligible to vote at their old addresses. Removing their outdated registrations does not “purge” voters; it is an effort to comply with federal and state requirements to maintain accurate voter rolls in the interest of election efficiency and to reduce the opportunity for fraud.

The movers list is not perfect. No method of maintaining ballot integrity and accurate voter rolls ever will be. A small percentage of persons on the list may not have moved. No one knows what that percentage is, but we think, based on past experience, that the percentage of voters listed as movers who have actually moved is on the order of 94-96%.

We do not argue that anyone listed as a mover be automatically stricken from the rolls. State law provides a number of safeguards for those who may not have moved. It requires that voters identified as movers be informed of the fact and given an opportunity to continue their registrations. If they fail to do so, they may re-register by mail or online prior to the election. If they forget to do that (or overlook the notice), they can re-register when they go to vote on Election Day.

When it comes to ballot integrity, voter rights are on both sides of the balance. Even isolated voter fraud cancels lawful votes. When it comes to convenience at the polls, having multiple people registered at the same address is a bad idea. We can disagree about how best to deal with these issues. We can argue about what the law requires.

But to treat the other side as criminals, fascists, Jim Crow-racists or deplorables generates all heat and no light. It is a perfect example of what is wrong with us today.


Soon after my initial response I updated the piece and offered it to The Capital Times to use instead. The newspaper declined.

My recent cartoon for The Capital Times condemning voter suppression by the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty (WILL) has raised howls of indignation from right-wing “guardians” of civil discourse. Among them was WILL president and general counsel Rick Esenberg, whose op/ed TCT published January 17.

“It is this type of vile and disgusting hyperbole — far more than Russian bots or inscrutable ‘dog whistles’ — that has us at each other’s throats,” Esenberg inveighs, apparently oblivious to the hyperbole he deploys throughout. Perhaps he missed his calling as a political cartoonist. Hype, after all, is what we do. We’re not politicians or diplomats. We are provocateurs, pushing the boundaries and prodding the targets of our pens to spur action and debate. If howls of outrage result, we’ve done our job. If debate ensues, we have succeeded.

Since 1983, I have illustrated companion cartoons for Dave Zweifel’s weekly column, which follows a long and honorable tradition of speaking truth to power. To paraphrase Chicago newspaper columnist Finley Peter Dunne, a newspaper’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If the comfortable are afflicted, Dave has done his job.

If Mr. Esenberg in particular feels afflicted, we’ve hit the jackpot. His organization has supported and is supported by politicians, groups and wealthy individuals whose fortunes rise by keeping others down. WILL backed Scott Walker’s divide-and-conquer strategy of destroying Wisconsin’s labor unions and fomenting the politics of resentment. WILL is also aligned with advocates of voter suppression laws that disenfranchised some 200,000 mostly Democratic and African American voters in 2016.

WILL gets millions in grants from Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation, which, in 2010, funded anonymous billboards in Milwaukee and two Ohio cities warning residents of the penalties for voter fraud. Concentrated in minority neighborhoods, the billboards came down after angry public outcry. Bradley and other WILL associates are now behind the proposed purge of another 200,000 Wisconsin voters. There’s no question who will be hurt most.

“Voter roll purges often disproportionately affect African-American or Latino-American voters,” the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights warned in 2018. And just this month, a Brennen Center for Justice report emphasized: “Over the past decade, half the states in the nation have placed new, direct burdens on people’s right to vote, abetted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. And the racial cause and effect of these seemingly race-neutral laws are hard to escape.”

Mr. Esenberg got one thing right about my cartoon: “The unmistakable subtext is a lynching.” Actually, it’s not “sub” anything. It’s out there as a grim reminder of a shameful history when white people resorted to violence, including lynching, to stop black people from voting. Since then, Republicans have followed a strategy articulated by Ronald Reagan’s former aide, Lee Atwater.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Ni**er, ni**er, ni**er.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘ni**er’ — that hurts you, backfires,” Atwater said. “So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘ni**er, ni**er.’”

Isn’t it ironic that Esenberg now raises “dog whistles”? There are none louder nor more practiced than those of his fellow Republicans.

Wisconsin’s own Paul Ryan, for example, decried the “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular [due to] men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working.” In doing so, he joined a small army of dog-whistling pols “using surreptitious references to race to garner support from anxious voters,” observed Ian Haney López, author of Dog Whistle Politics. Lopez provides examples: “Barry Goldwater’s endorsement of ‘states’ rights’; Richard Nixon’s opposition to ‘forced busing’; Ronald Reagan’s blasts against ‘welfare queens’; and George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad.”

Donald Trump challenged Obama’s citizenship and still hasn’t conceded. As president, he has attacked four, Democratic women of color in the House, urging that “they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He has even compared his impeachment to “a lynching.”

Dog whistles endure in Republican world, but, like WILL’s agenda and Esenberg’s op/ed, they won’t fool anyone who doesn’t want to be fooled. As North Carolina civil rights activist Rev. William Barber II noted, “Jim Crow did not retire: he went to law school and launched a second career. Meet James Crow, Esquire.”


Lynching voters is part of Florida’s history. On Nov. 2, 1920 in Ocoee, Florida at least 50 African Americans were murdered for attempting to vote. It’s called the Ocoee Massacre.


In 2018, Florida voters amended the constitution to allow former felons the right to vote. As a result, the Florida Legislature passed a law (and Trump favorite Gov. DeSantis signed it) requiring former felons to pay all fines and fees before having their vote restored. The Florida Supreme Court supported DeSantis in a advisory decision. This amounts to a poll tax. I revised the cartoon to reflect the Florida example:

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One Comment

  1. Well-informed,measured and brilliant, response to Esenberg. Thank you for pushing the envelope to speak truth to power and make bigoted reps uncomfortable. Keep it up!!

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