Wisconsin Primary: A Post-Mortem

Only five polling places served Milwaukee voters out of the usual 180. The lines lasted hours, some throughout the evening. Source: Associated Press.

It was Bush vs. Gore all over again, as the US Supreme Court once again made a mockery of our democracy.

The April 7 Wisconsin primary election is worth revisiting, if only to make evident how fragile our democracy is.

In summary, this particular election may serve as a striking example of how far the Republicans will go to cling to power, the rule of law be damned. Their base is shrinking rapidly. Only a fist on the proverbial scale can sustain the Republican brand.

That fist is Donald Trump. Republicans understand that Trump’s authoritarian instincts are tempered by his incompetence and amorality. Puppeteers such as Mike Pence, William Barr and Fox News are more than willing to fill in the blanks. In fact, it is the only reason Trump is tolerated…tolerated by a political brand that has abandoned all pretense of having a moral compass.

And now, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has jumped into the fray…of nakedly partisan political warfare. We’ll get to them.

On, Wisconsin…

I am assuming you have some familiarity of what went down in Wisconsin. So instead of a wordy timeline, let’s count on ABC News via YouTube to provide background (an excellent two minute report):

US Supreme Court Suppresses Wisconsin Vote

First of all, when I name the US Supreme Court, I am referring to the conservative majority of SCOTUS. According to a 2019 survey, the court under Chief Justice John Roberts has rendered 73- five to four decisions along partisan lines when Republican donor interests were front-and-center.

Here is the breakdown of the Supreme Court, left and right. It’s very simple math.

Source: New York Times

When the Wisconsin legislature (Republicans control both houses) and the Wisconsin Supreme Court insisted that absentee ballots be postmarked by April 7, election day, even though thousand of voters would not receive their mail-in ballots until after the April 7 date, the US Supreme Court gave the Republicans the go-ahead to proceed with their voter suppression scheme.

Recklessly, Wisconsin held an election during a global pandemic, while a dozen or so states chose to postpone their electionsto protect the safety of their voters. It was a brazen attempt to secure the election of one of its right wing justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court…a game plan that, in any case, failed miserably. More on that soon.

It was Bush v. Gore all over again, with the US Supreme Court picking electoral winners and losers.

SCOTUS rationalized its blatant partisanship based on its own precedent. The case, Purcell v. Gonzalez (2006), has been a thorn in the side of voting rights advocates ever since it was enacted. Purcell ruled that when a particular election is close at hand, “court orders can themselves result in voter confusion and consequently incentivize people to remain away from the polls. As the election draws closer, that risk will increase.”

In some cases, Purcell has validity. But certainly not when the main source of voter confusion is staying safe from an invisible virus.

Bad Day for Democracy

The US Supreme Court’s Wisconsin decision, like its recent gerrymandering decision, means that we should not count on the courts to remedy last-minute election dysfunction. It gives Republicans a permit to conduct American elections in any way they damn please. Not even a deadly, fast-spreading virus would necessitate judicial intervention. Democracy has seen better days.

Judge Jill Karofsky celebrating her victory a la social distancing. Photo: Dylan Brogan
Now For Some Good News

Of course the real action in Wisconsin’s primary election was the seat on the state supreme court, with conservatives holding a 5-2 advantage. If a liberal candidate could beat trumpy arch-conservative Justice Daniel Kelly, then the next election in 2022 could tip the majority to the liberals. A number of pivotal decisions are at stake, including a planned voter purge and the state’s redistricting process.

At 7:00 pm on April 13, it was official: Dane County circuit court judge Jill Karofsky won a 10-year term on Wisconsin’s highest court. The margin was 55.3% to 44.7%. Karofsky will join the liberals on the bench.

Let’s hear it from Judge Karofsky herself:

“I didn’t have any money. I had a full-time job. I’m a single mom of two teenagers. He had so much more money than I had. He was the incumbent. His campaign spent hundreds of thousand of dollars on those lying ads. He had Donald Trump tweeting for him. [Republicans] used a global pandemic to try to suppress the vote. And I still won.

It’s been a rough past week in Wisconsin. But this gives me hope.

Jill Karofsky
Good Day for Democrats

One of the reasons Karofsky won was the robust turnout by primary voters, especially Democrats. Even as Milwaukee polling places shrunk from 180 to five…Even amid the confusion of back-and-forth court decisions about absentee ballots…Even as a record number of poll workers called out because of safety concerns…Even as the coronavirus has hit the black community especially hard...voter turnout hit 34.3%, the second best turnout for a state supreme court race.

Only the 2016 primary had higher turnout, and that was when both major parties had competitive presidential primaries. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the 2020 Wisconsin race before the vote was counted.

I believe Wisconsin’s 2020 turnout has implications for the upcoming presidential election. People risked their lives by going to polling stations. As much as I admire Jill Karofsky and wish her the best, there was a bigger driver of Democratic turnout.

Donald Trump.

Andrew Goutman

Andrew Goutman is the editor of The Record.

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