Ruminations on the Wisconsin Election

The April 4th Wisconsin election was a huge victory for progressives. Judge Janet Protasiewicz soundly trounced the conservative candidate by an 11% margin. This overwhelming victory will have a major positive impact on Wisconsin.

The court is now controlled by judges whose rulings will be guided by seeking justice within the law. The highly partisan rulings of the past 15 years will end. The ridiculous notion that judicial rulings on social issues must adhere to the “original intent” of earlier racists and misogynists will no longer limit progress. It will now be possible, as it always should have been, for the law to evolve as knowledge, technologies, and mores change.

Despite all the campaign rhetoric from the conservatives, the rule of law and protecting the true meaning of the state or federal constitutions has not been the result of highly partisan conservative judges. For many years right wing judges have ignored legal precedents, cherry picked laws and “legislated from the bench” when it served their purpose. This legalistic dishonesty led to many rulings favorable to political, social and economic conservatives. In Wisconsin rulings on gerrymandering, voting rights, election procedures, mining, labor unions, and stripping powers from the governor and attorney general are examples. Even sensible, long established public health practices were politicized.

The April 4th election was the most expensive state supreme court election in the history of the country. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign says the finally tally will be around $50 million dollars. Both sides raised millions from wealthy out-of-state donors. Million more were funneled through political parties and issue advocacy groups to avoid direct contribution limits. It is laughable to believe all this was spent on a “non-partisan” race with no expectation for political return-on-investment.

This time the payback will accrue to progressives, but it still illustrates the need for serious campaign finance reforms. This is one of many issues the Republican controlled legislature refuses to address. In fact in 2015 they made it worse by increasing campaign contribution limits. Ironically, this time the Democrats did very well at the money chase game. Protasiewicz garnered significantly more $20,000 maximum contributions than Kelly.

Judge Protasiewicz also did well because of Republican extremism. This election was about  protecting abortion rights and ending gerrymandering in Wisconsin. Both of these issues are likely to come before the court in the near future. The Republican positions on both of these issues are extreme and out of touch with the views of most Wisconsin voters.

On abortion a solid majority (58%) of Wisconsin residents support legal abortion in most cases. Twenty seven percent favor a women’s right to choose a legal abortion in all circumstances. But Republicans are pushing the 1849 law that bans all abortions except to save the life of the woman. It doesn’t make exceptions for rape and incest.

Judge Protasiewicz was upfront and honest about her personal beliefs and values regarding abortion. Kelly claimed he would not rule based on his personal beliefs but this was an obvious lie. He has been an ardent anti-abortion supporter. His entire public history proves he is a loyal partisan who will vote the party line.

Maybe all this is why Judge Protasiewicz won by 56% to 44%. There might be a correlation between 58% supporting abortion and her 56% vote total.

Similarly a large majority of Wisconsinites, from all political parties, want fair elections and an end to partisan gerrymandering. Some polls report percentages as high as 87%. Since 2011, 56 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have either passed a county board resolution or ballot referendum endorsing nonpartisan maps. But the Republican redistricting in Wisconsin is  some of the worst partisan gerrymandering in the country.

Following the highly partisan U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to leave gerrymandering to the states, the highly partisan Wisconsin Supreme Court rubber stamped the most partisan of the district map options bring considered. In a 4-3 decision, the Republican majority chose the maps with the “least change” from the existing  gerrymandered districts. This ridiculous judicial reasoning ignored all neutral, non-partisan redistricting criteria.

So voters concerned about our democracy understood that the only possibility of ending gerrymandering was to vote for Judge Protasiewicz. They did so in record numbers.

A record breaking 1.8 million votes were cast on April 4. This is about 51% of the electorate and set a record for spring elections with no presidential primary. This year even exceeded the 27% turnout for 2020 presidential primary. When liberals lost their majority on the court in 2008, voter turnout was just 19 percent.

This year young people, especially women, voted in record numbers. The turnout was especially strong on college campuses where women and student groups organized exceptional efforts to increase voting.

The take away is most people have views on issues more liberal (or at least less regressive) than the right wing Republican extremists in the legislature. This time Republican extremism motivated people to vote – and to vote against them. When people vote in larger numbers progressives win.

Another lesson is when people pull together good things happen. In this election many organizations, with diverse objectives, organized to support Judge Protasiewicz. Recognizing the threat to democracy, and to their issues, from a conservative supreme court many groups actively worked to increase voter turnout. This shows how people do have power when they set aside their differences and work for the common good.

Judge Janet also ran a good campaign. She unapologetically told the public about her values and beliefs. Talking about the issues that matter to most of the people shows respect for voters. We all know judges are political and their backgrounds are inevitably going to affect their rulings on social issues. Judge Protasiewicz was honest about this reality. Her opponent offered the usual lies about being “impartial” and only upholding the law. We have heard these lies before and this time it didn’t work.

This election will have a positive impact on the people of Wisconsin. The reactionary Republicans can no longer completely dominate the state. Will this be the beginning of a new era of progressive good government? It will if the people continue to vote for the decency and the common good.