Wisconsin After the Most Significant Election of 2023

Will We Move Forward, Backwards or More of the Same?

The national hype for this contest for ideological control of the State Supreme Court was justified and not over the top. It was by any measure, monumentally significant.

The April 4th State Supreme Court election in Wisconsin was portrayed in the national media and by political experts across the ideological spectrum as the most important and consequential election in the United States during all of this year. Given our state’s key position as one of the country’s most closely divided and hotly contested “battleground” states and the ramifications that the outcome of the election could have both nationally and — even more critically — for the lives of Wisconsinites, the national hype for this contest for ideological control of the State Supreme Court was justified and not over the top. It was by any measure, monumentally significant.

Perhaps the most surprising outcome was the very big margin of victory — better than 55 to 45 percent — and over 200,000 votes more for Milwaukee Judge Janet Protasiewicz over former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly out of over 1.8 million votes cast. It was the second such massive repudiation of Kelly in the last three years. In 2020 Kelly was decisively ousted from the state’s highest court by current Justice Jill Karofsky of Madison by a similar double digit point margin.

Voter turnout was very high and unprecedented for an April “off year” election in Wisconsin with nearly 40 percent of all eligible to vote casting ballots. Considering all of the roadblocks to voting both in person and by absentee ballot that have been erected by partisans seeking political advantage over the past dozen years, this very high voter turnout level was truly remarkable. And encouraging! Imagine how many more Wisconsinites could have their voices heard and their votes counted if we were still like our neighboring state of Minnesota, where voter suppression measures such as photo ID and other restrictions have been blocked. Fifteen years ago voter turnout in Wisconsin was on par with Minnesota’s, which has long been the highest in the nation. Now, we lag far behind the Gopher state.

Voting Rights: A new, pro-democracy majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court may mean we can begin to move back toward where this state was prior to 2011 when the far reaching assault on free and fair elections was launched here. For example, conservatives on the court just last July in a 4 to 3 decision voted to senselessly eliminate the use of all of the more than 500 secure drop boxes across the state to which voters could more conveniently return their absentee ballots during the 2020 election and previous elections. And that same 4 to 3 conservative majority decided that election clerks would no longer be able to make common sense corrections to the addresses of witnesses who signed absentee ballots, likely resulting in many such ballots not being counted in the election. And that’s only the beginning of many such measures imposed on Wisconsin voters over the years designed to gain political advantage by making voting more difficult, burdensome and less accessible for hundreds of thousands of voters, particularly if they were judged to be more supportive of the political party not in power in Wisconsin.

Redistricting Reform: Judge Protasiewicz, during her campaign for the Supreme Court, stated the obvious when asked about the partisan gerrymandering of Wisconsin state legislative districts in 2011 and then again in 2021-22. She said she believed that the voting maps designed in secret and rammed through the GOP-controlled Legislature along straight party lines were “rigged.” So did three other current justices on the court (Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsy) when the four conservatives on the court (Annette Ziegler, Patience Roggensack, Rebecca Bradley and Brian Hagedorn) voted 4 to 3 to accept only voting maps that adhered to a legally dubious “least change” standard from the heavily gerrymandered maps of 2011. The court conservatives adopted the even more politically partisan gerrymandered Republican state legislative maps engineered by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester).  But now, that result can, must and will be challenged beginning this August when Protasiewicz assumes office.

According to the legal experts and pro-democracy attorneys at Law Forward, the legal challenge that will be filed shortly after August 1st will be based on the argument that the partisan GOP gerrymander of 2021-22 (and presumably 2011 as well) violated the Wisconsin Constitution in the way that it did not uphold the right of state voters to have a “free and fair (state) government” and because of the way “gerrymandered maps have consolidated power within a legislative body that is not accountable to the voters, and is not a free and fair government.”

CCWI has expressed a willingness to actively participate in this important litigation in whatever way is most useful and helpful to assist and elevate this critically important legal challenge. As the state’s largest non-partisan citizen reform advocacy organization with more than 12,000 members and activists in every county and corner of Wisconsin and 52 years of experience and expertise in this area, we are uniquely equipped to be part of this incredible opportunity to move Wisconsin toward fair voting maps that reflect the will of the voters of this state instead of the unfair, undemocratic and ultimately un-American vision and control of our state by likes of Robin Vos, Scott Walker and a host of other politicians who have not hesitated to do anything and everything to exercise raw partisan political power.

Finally, beginning in August, we have an opportunity to begin to “tear down the wall” that has been constructed over the past dozen years in Wisconsin!

In another victory for democracy and against partisan gerrymandering – this time at the grass-roots level (which is where all such battles are truly won) democracy activists in Juneau County, including long time CC/WI member, Dr. Leon Radant of Mauston, organized themselves, contacted their elected county supervisors on the board there and the board passed a resolution by a resounding 17 to 4 vote in support of having the Wisconsin Legislature adopt a non-partisan redistricting process (like our neighboring state of Iowa’s). This brings to 56, the number of Wisconsin’s 72 counties that have passed such resolutions. Radant and his allies are now seeking to have an advisory referendum question on the issue placed on the ballot in a future election where it would undoubtedly pass overwhelmingly, as it has every such time it has been on any county (red or blue) ballot – 32 times. This is just a spectacular achievement by Juneau County citizen activists and should provide encouragement to every Wisconsinite!

Campaign Finance: The Protasiewicz – Kelly contest was far and away the most expensive state supreme court election in American history with upwards of $42 million spent. How could this be possible in only the 20th most populous state in the Union and with so-called “non partisan” elections for the state supreme court? The answer is that spending limits, public financing, transparency and prohibitions on allowing the corrupting influence of money in all of our state’s elections were deliberately and systematically stripped from our law in Wisconsin over the past 12 years. In interviews with the media conducted right before the election, CCWI explained exactly what happened here and here. Campaign finance laws, spending limits, disclosure and transparency – all areas in which Wisconsin used to shine and lead the nation, have all been eviscerated and need to be constructed from scratch. This can and should be done, not just in Wisconsin but nationally as well.

Is there a better way to select judges in Wisconsin? That has been looked at in our state in the past and it is time to do so again. The Brennan Center for Justice has these suggestions.

Support for CCWI: Finally, CCWI wants to express its profound gratitude to Delta Beer Lab in Madison for their recent and amazingly generous contribution of just shy of $5,000 to CCWI! This was a result of their reaching out to us and collaborating during the month of March on elevating and educating Wisconsin voters about the urgent need to end partisan gerrymandering and the necessity to participate in the April 4th Supreme Court election. The contribution was a result of tips collected during March and events, including a really wonderful and well attended “town hall meeting” at Delta on March 30th. Iuscely Flores, of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, joined the event with an update on the grassroots activism that continues to grow across the state in support of fair maps and then led the participants in an energizing game of Redistricting Lotería. The town hall event was incredibly lively and was one of the best such events I have had the privilege of being part of in my 27 years at CCWI. Thanks so much to Pio, Andrew and Speedy at Delta for all of the amazing work they do to support democracy. And for their fantastic beer! What could be more Wisconsin than that?

In sum, is Wisconsin moving forward, backwards or will it stay the same?  As a result of the April 4th election and after the active participation in our political process of so many of you who care and act to make our state a better place to live in, we can say we are definitely moving FORWARD!  We have a long way to go but we are, finally, moving in the right direction.

Thank you and let’s keep it up. On Wisconsin!
Jay Heck

Common Cause Wisconsin Director