In 2010, Republicans won a series of state legislative races in Wisconsin which allowed for them to redraw district lines to their own advantage; this strategy cemented their power in the state for the next decade. In 2022, the 4-3 conservative Wisconsin state Supreme Court selected a legislative redistricting plan which was drawn by Republicans; and while the preexisting map from 2011 already favored the Republican party, this new map further increased the GOP’s advantages in elections, making it virtually impossible for Republicans to lose their legislative majority. Stanford University political science and statistics professor, Simon Jackman, stated that the map was one of the five most gerrymandered maps for the GOP that he could find in the last forty-two years. Furthermore, Princeton University’s Gerrymandering Project gave these maps the lowest possible grade when it came to partisan fairness. The conservative majority within the state Supreme Court also played a crucial role in undermining democracy at a local level. Just last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that submitting votes via absentee ballot boxes would no longer be allowed in Wisconsin, and that voters would have to personally submit their ballots to the clerk’s office. This decision was opposed by Disability Rights Wisconsin, who argued that these decisions threatened to disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters who were prevented by disability from physically putting their ballot in the mail, or who were otherwise inconvenienced by said decision. Efforts to suppress ballot accessibility are continuous. Just a few months ago, a conservative group known as the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed a lawsuit against the city of Racine’s clerk who drove around in a van to collect early in-person absentee votes during the 2022 primary and midterm elections. This was done in order to increase the accessibility of voting in Racine; however, Republicans believed that Democratic candidates were the primary beneficiaries of increasing accessible voting, which prompted this backlash.
Thus, the stakes for the Wisconsin Supreme Court election were high. Prior to the April 2023 elections, conservative Chief Justice, Patience Roggensack, announced that she did not intend to run for another term. This announcement immediately drew the attention of both the Republican and Democratic parties, who understood the importance of the upcoming election to fill her seat. While Wisconsin’s Supreme Court elections are nominally non-partisan, the judges running in these elections frequently affiliate themselves with the Republican or Democratic parties. Judge Janet Protasiewicz is affiliated with the Democratic party, and her opposition, Judge Daniel Kelly, is affiliated with the Republican party. Prior to the election, both the Republican and Democratic parties invested millions of dollars into campaign advertising for their respective candidates. In fact, the combined campaign expenditures for both Janet Protasiewicz and her opponent, Judge Daniel Kelly, topped out at over 42 million dollars, making this the most expensive court race in U.S. history. While this figure demonstrates the important role that financial investment plays in American politics and local elections, this hardly constitutes new information.
Indeed, the more interesting insight from this election is the revelation that voter turnout in local elections can be incentivized by framing elections around pertinent external issues. In this instance, Protasiewicz’s campaign chose to focus on the implications that this election would have on abortion rights in the state, rather than focusing on the effects that this election would have on democracy. While the importance of reproductive rights and access to medical procedures is an issue of major significance in America’s current political landscape, a decade’s worth of voter suppression in Wisconsin, and the national trauma experienced after the January 6 insurrection should make the preservation of democracy an issue of both local and national concern for democrats, and thus an issue to rally around. Nevertheless, Democrats were savvy enough to frame the Supreme Court campaign on the issues which more demonstrably galvanized democratic voters. Democrats recognized that in Wisconsin and in other elections around the United States, the lingering threat of legislation banning abortion has served as a major incentive for increased participation in local elections. In a post-Roe America, this revelation provides democrats with an easily replicable strategy for elections.
With her election, Judge Protasiewicz has stated that she intends to reassess election maps, adding that a liberal majority in the state Supreme Court might be able to strike down any maps which are found to be unfair. Furthermore, the voting-accessibility lawsuit will likely end up in front of the state Supreme Court, where Protasiewicz is expected to oppose the motion to limit voter accessibility. While there are no guarantees that the impending reassessment and any accompanying changes made to the electoral maps will result in the election of more legislators from the Democratic party, the dismissal of the gerrymandered maps and implementation of new electoral maps will protect democracy in the state of Wisconsin by ensuring the fairness of future elections. The Wisconsin Supreme Court elections marked a monumental victory for democracy in the state of Wisconsin and serve as a valuable reminder of the fragility of democracy at the state level. Had Protasiewicz lost this election, Wisconsin’s gerrymandered electoral maps would have gone unchanged for another decade, preventing fair elections from happening in the state, which would have constrained the voice of voters living in Wisconsin. Arguably the most important takeaway from this election, is the insight that it provides on the role that external issues play in motivating voter turnout and shaping voter behavior. It suggests that framing the elections around special issues, such as access to medical procedures and reproductive rights, rather than issues concerning democratic erosion incentivizes high voter turnout. It also reminds us that even in democratic countries such as the United States, subnational authoritarian regimes can use local elections to hinder democracy at a national level, and that these regimes are still susceptible to being thwarted through democratic means. By appealing to external issues, democrats discovered a replicable strategy to win elections. For Wisconsin, the election of Janet Protasiewicz will flip the formerly conservative court, and present the state Supreme Court with a unique and fortuitous opportunity to reassess the gerrymandered election maps, repeal voter suppression laws and preserve democracy at a subnational level.
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