Liberals narrowly - and surprisingly - lost a state Supreme Court seat last year. That could make all the difference this year.

Zorn Arena, which serves as a polling place on the campus of UW-Eau Claire, is nearly empty Tuesday in the middle of a pandemic that sent most students home.
Photo by Jake Olson for The Badger Project.


Today could have gone a lot differently if the left-leaning candidate had won election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court last year.

Liberals are trying again this year, but the loss last year could make a win this year much harder.

Unlike every other state scheduled to hold an election after March 17, Wisconsin is the only one to hold its election in-person. The rest moved to a different date, or to all mail-in ballots.

Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

That’s because “some states grant governors or other authorities explicit powers to alter election practices during emergencies,” UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden told The Badger Project in an email. “In other states there has been cooperation between the governor and the state legislature to reschedule primary elections. Wisconsin has neither.”

Since the race for the Democratic nomination for president is not very competitive between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the main event in the Wisconsin Spring Election today is the race for state Supreme Court.

The right-leaning state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, who was appointed there in 2016, is facing Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky, who is backed by liberals.

Conservatives hold a 5-2 majority on the state’s highest court, and liberals were hoping to chop that advantage down to 4-3 with a Karofsky win.

She had the initial advantage. The election is being held on the same ballot as the Democratic Presidential Primary, which under normal circumstances boosts voter turnout on the left.

But the deadly COVID-19 pandemic scrambled everything, as did the Republican-controlled Legislature’s refusal to move the election.

After saying he did not have the legal authority to postpone it, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, did just that yesterday, one day before it was supposed to take place. He cited his constitutional duty to protect the safety of the state’s citizens. Republicans called him a hypocrite and a flip-flopper.

The Legislature’s Republican leadership, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, immediately asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to block the move.

In a 4-2 vote yesterday, the 7-justice Wisconsin Supreme Court blocked Gov. Tony Evers' attempt to postpone the election. Kelly, on the ballot for reelection today, abstained.

The votes still need to be counted, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision yesterday - made by four of the five conservatives on the court - means the conservatives are more likely to maintain their 5-2 majority. Kelly now has the advantage on his liberal challenger Karofsky.

That's in part because voting in Milwaukee, a stronghold of Democratic voters, is greatly affected by the pandemic. Many poll workers, afraid to congregate in the middle of a pandemic, refused to work. Instead of its normal 180 polling places, Milwaukee has just five open today. That’s about 3 percent the normal amount of polling locations.

In the middle of a deadly pandemic - one that has killed at least 92 in Wisconsin and more than 10,000 nationally - are people going to be more likely to vote in heavily populated urban areas - which lean to the left - or more sparsely-populated rural areas, which lean to the right? The answer seems clear.

Now jump back in time to the near past. 

In the spring election last year, in which polls had him behind, right-leaning State Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn narrowly - and surprisingly - upset the left-leaning State Appeals Court Lisa Neubauer.

With more than 1.2 million votes cast, Hagedorn squeaked by Neubauer with 50.22 percent of the vote compared to her 49.72%. That’s a tiny difference of about 6,000 votes. Half a percentage point.

Had Neubauer won, the Wisconsin Supreme Court would have been split 4-3 in favor of the conservatives. In yesterday’s decision on whether to block Gov. Evers’ attempt to postpone the election, Kelly probably would have abstained again. That likely would have led to a 3-3 deadlock on the court, leaving it in place.

Postponing the election in the middle of the pandemic might have returned the advantage, in this election and on the entire Wisconsin Supreme Court, to the political left. It would have given people more time to receive and return their absentee ballots by mail in an election of more interest to Democrats than Republicans. And maybe the pandemic would have been under control by Evers’ now-aborted election date of June 9, leading to higher voter turnout.

We’ll never know what the postponing would have done. But it makes the number one rule of politics crystal clear:

Elections matter.

This article first appeared on The Badger Project and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Steve Hanson

Steve is a web designer and recently retired from running the hosting and development company Cruiskeen Consulting LLC. Cruiskeen Consulting LLC is the parent company of Wis.Community, and publication of this site continues after his retirement.

Steve is a member of LION Publishers and the Local Media Association, is active in Health Dunn Right, and is vice-president of the League of Women Voters of the greater Chippewa Valley


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