One weekend in late March, McKenzie Schroeder offered to drive her friend across the Wisconsin border into Illinois to get an abortion. Abortion has been illegal in Wisconsin since June, when the US supreme court overturned Roe v Wade, reviving the state’s 1849 near-total abortion ban.
“If you’ve never been in that situation, you can never understand how a woman feels if they’re pregnant and don’t know what to do,” said Schroeder, 30, who lives in Sun Prairie and works for a property management company and as a waitress. “I don’t think that any human being on the face of the earth should control what I do with my body.”
Wisconsin’s abortion law has divided voters in the state, who next week could pave the way for getting rid of the ban entirely in the most consequential election of 2023.
At stake on 4 April is control of the Wisconsin supreme court, which will ultimately decide the fate of the 1849 ban (a challenge is already working its way through state courts). The seven-member supreme court will likely hear consequential cases over voting disputes ahead of the 2024 election in Wisconsin, a key presidential battleground. The outcome of the election could determine whether Wisconsin’s state legislative districts last for another decade or are replaced. Republicans drew the lines and the districts are so heavily distorted in their favor that it is essentially impossible for Democrats to ever take control of the legislature.
That perfect storm of issues has caused a record amount of money – around $30m – to flood the race. Daniel Kelly, a conservative, and Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal, are both vying to replace retiring conservative justice Patience Roggensack. Conservatives currently have a 4-3 majority on the state court, so whoever wins the race will determine control of the bench.
During the first days of early voting, which began on 21 March, people at the polls across the state cited abortion and voting rights as well as fair elections as key concerns going into Election Day. Voters also described crime, a subject that has dominated political ads, as a top concern. The homicide rate in Milwaukee’s, Wisconsin’s largest city, rose by 11% in 2022 from the year before, but overall violent crime and other serious offenses dropped by 7%.
“My number one is abortion,” said Pauline Tanem, a retired foundry worker in Oak Creek. Concerns about democracy and voting rights also informed her support for Protasiewicz. She said she was motivated by “anything that has to do with voting, and not limiting voting,” noting that early voting at her polling place closed before 5pm. “People usually work until five.”
Barry Burden, a political science professor who closely follows races in Wisconsin and directs the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that voters seem to be most interested in a small number of issues.
“Abortion is the dominating issue,” he said. “And redistricting and other voting matters are not far behind. Everything else is far down the list.”
In an interview with the Guardian, Protasiewicz pointed to abortion as a defining issue of the election, but refrained from calling it the most important one. She has campaigned heavily on her support for a woman’s right to choose, though she has said she would decide abortion issues based on existing law.
“I think that people are very interested in whether or not they have a right to make their own reproductive health care choices,” she said. “I’d be hard pressed to say that it’s a referendum on abortion, but it’s certainly an issue that concerns people.”
During the race, Kelly has refrained from voicing his opinions on abortion rights, although in a since-deleted blog post he referred to pro-choice organizations and politicians as promoting “sexual libertinism”. He has been endorsed by three anti-abortion groups in Wisconsin. (Kelly’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Political advertising has saturated the airwaves. Protasiewicz has raised a staggering $10m, while both sides have been supported by significant outside spending. The anti-abortion group Susan B Anthony has reported spending $2m on the race in support of Kelly, while the advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood has contributed at least $1m in support of Protasiewicz.
“Political ads are, in my opinion, an unnecessary evil,” said Steve Scheuer, an insurance adjuster from Oconomowoc, a heavily Republican city in Waukesha county. “I think there’s a lot of money spent on that that’s wasted.” Scheurer and his wife, Heather, who works as a secretary at a local Lutheran church, said they were unpersuaded by television advertisements and pointed to abortion as the issue driving their support for Kelly.
“We are against abortion,” said Heather Scheuer, who said the issue was a long-term concern and closely tied to her religious beliefs. “They are human beings at conception. That’s what we believe in 100%.”
Omar Ward, a 26-year-old canvasser with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said voting rights were particularly important to him. Ward, who is from Milwaukee, had his voting rights restored after four years when the state expunged a felony from his record in 2022. His first time casting a ballot since then was in the supreme court primary in February.
While canvassing in Milwaukee and Racine, Ward said he heard more about abortion rights and crime than other issues. “Nobody feels like they should have to go all the way to Chicago to make a decision on their body and well-being,” he said. “And on both sides, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, everybody wants the crime to come down.”
During the candidates’ only debate, which was televised on 22 March, Kelly and Protasiewicz clashed repeatedly over abortion and safety – with Kelly casting his opponent as soft on crime.
Protasiewicz told the Guardian she wants to push back on that characterization, given “that’s what I’ve spent my entire career doing, you know, holding people accountable”.
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