Voters in Wisconsin are casting ballots on Tuesday in one of the most important elections of 2023 – a contest that will determine the ideological balance of the state’s supreme court.
The court will probably determine the future of abortion in Wisconsin, as a lawsuit challenging the state’s 1849 ban is already winding its way through the courts. It is also poised to play a hugely consequential role in setting election rules for the 2024 presidential election in Wisconsin, a key battleground state. It could also get rid of the state’s legislative maps, which are so distorted in favor of Republicans that it’s nearly impossible for Democrats to ever win a majority.
Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal Milwaukee judge, is facing off against Dan Kelly, a conservative who lost his seat on the supreme court in 2020. Conservatives currently have a 4-3 majority on the state’s highest court, but one of its conservative justices is retiring, meaning that the outcome of the election will determine the ideological balance of the court.
The race is the most expensive judicial race in American history. More than $45m has been spent, shattering the $10m record that was spent in Wisconsin in 2020 as well as the national record of $15m spent on an Illinois race in 2004. Protasiewicz’s campaign has received significant financial backing from the Wisconsin Democratic party, while Kelly has has been bolstered by spending from outside groups, most notably a Super Pac backed by GOP mega-donors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein. Kelly has also received donations from individuals who tried to overturn the 2020 election.
Abortion has dominated the race, as have concerns about voting rights and crime.
In Menomonee Falls, a Milwaukee suburb in conservative Waukesha county, a steady stream of voters poured into cast votes at the Good Shepherd church, a local polling station. Several voters pointed to abortion as their top issue in the race.
“Abortion is top on my list. I’m definitely pro-choice, I don’t think anybody else should be telling me or any other woman what to do,” said Karen Bitzan, a 64-year-old self-described homemaker, outside the polling place, where it was cold and drizzling on Tuesday morning. “I don’t understand the Republicans who say you can’t have an abortion but then they have no plan of how to protect those children who are forced to be born to parents who don’t want them.”
Lisa Ruiz, a 67-year-old retiree supporting Kelly, also pointed to abortion as the issue that drove her to the polls. “Abortion is my number one. I stand against abortion,” she said. “It’s bringing more Christians to come and vote.”
Menomonee Falls is part of a state senate district where there is a closely watched election on Tuesday that could give Republicans a supermajority in the state legislature. Republicans could use that advantage to override vetoes from Tony Evers, the state’s Democratic governor, as well as to potentially impeach state officials. Dan Knodl, the Republican state senate candidate, has said he would consider impeaching Protasiewicz if he wins.
But several voters said on Tuesday they were hoping that a reconstituted supreme court would reconsider the state legislative districts, upending the Republican advantage in the state legislature.
“If Kelly wins, it means they basically still have a stranglehold on the state, except when they have a statewide election. And that’s not good news,” Terese Dineen, 70, said after she voted in Brookfield, another Milwaukee suburb.
“I just think it’s ridiculous that a state that’s so evenly divided is just not represented,” said Bill Anderson, 57, a project manager in Brookfield.
Also on the ballot on Tuesday were two GOP-backed referendum questions dealing with cash bail and welfare benefits. Democrats say those questions are a blatant effort to juice Republican turnout and some voters expressed frustration at how hard they were to understand. “I would like a referendum question to make referendum questions more understandable,” said Debra Tomkins, a voter in Madison, the state capital.
In Milwaukee, as a heavy rain began falling around noon, canvassers dressed in neon vests gathered at the office of Black Leaders Organizing Communities (Bloc), a civic engagement group focused on Black communities. An organizer reminded canvassers to tell voters that they could still return their mail-in ballots in person and that those who voted a provisional ballot without identification would need to return with an accepted form of ID to have their vote counted.
The majority of Wisconsin’s Black population is in Milwaukee. Earlier this year, Robert Spindell, a Republican on the six-member body that oversees voting in the state, celebrated low turnout in the city in 2022.
“It’s really angering all of us. It makes us work harder. We know we have to knock 10 extra doors to make up for however many people are trying to misinform, spread misinformation,” said Kyle Johnson, 27, Bloc’s political director.
New maps in Wisconsin could also make a huge difference in Milwaukee, where Black voters have been packed into as few districts as possible to dilute their overall influence. “There’s so many other issues that we’re not able to move forward on unfortunately because of redistricting and specifically because of gerrymandering,” said Angela Lang, the group’s executive director.
Voters and election officials reported high turnout at polling places on college campuses.
“Young voters normally don’t vote in judicial elections, but this year is different,” said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic party of Wisconsin, during a get-out-the-vote event on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. “There’s this real sense that with reproductive freedom on the line and democracy on the line, this is a can’t-miss election.”
A video on Twitter showed long lines of students waiting to vote at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. The wait was around 45 minutes to an hour, said Matthew Lehner, the president of the school’s college Democrats. “The clerk’s office simply wasn’t prepared for the numbers and new registrations, which were off the charts,” he said. Lehner said he and other students had contacted local officials, who had provided more resources and the wait has since gone down.
Concerns over abortion limits were driving students to vote, Lehner said. “Young people are just more interested in electoral politics and politics in the state. We’ve seen a massive increase in students all across the state of Wisconsin voting.”
Wisconsin was expecting severe weather Tuesday afternoon, including high winds, hail and a potential tornado. The Dane county clerk, Scott McDonell, told the Guardian he was concerned about how the weather might affect turnout and was telling people to vote early.
Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s chief election official, told reporters in a call that she was working with Wisconsin emergency management to monitor the weather.
“Severe weather is a very common contingency that Wisconsin election officials are prepared for,” she said.
Polls close at 8pm.
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