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Turnout, turnout, turnout: It’s time to go vote, Wisconsin
Turnout in Spring Elections in Wisconsin is far lower than the fall. Every last vote is going to matter. Your vote is your voice, and now is the time to make it heard. Let's do this.
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six-time TEN-TIME Milwaukee Press Club award-winningweekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The Spring Election in Wisconsin is now just one week away.
If it feels like there’s been a lot building to this moment, that’s because there has. The race for Wisconsin Supreme Court that will be on the ballot statewide represents the culmination of several years-long efforts to chart a new course forward for the state’s highest court and for Wisconsin in general after years of conservative conquest. The opportunity to bring meaningful change to this state is now right in front of us.
Electing a justice to a 10-year term – through 2033! – is undeniably important regardless of the greater context, but in this case, that greater context amounts to huge ramifications for the future of Wisconsin. Electing Janet Protasiewicz to the Wisconsin Supreme Court would turn a 4-3 conservative majority to a 4-3 progressive majority.
The change that flipping this court would mean is profound, and a chance for voters to make a decision like this does not come around often. There won’t always be an open seat with a justice retiring. The seven-member court won’t always be composed of three liberals and three conservatives. This is a remarkably rare opportunity for voters to make a huge difference.
Over the course of a 10-year term, the justice elected next week will rule on so many issues you care about. It will provide important checks and balances on the governor and the legislature (which is a major problem right now). The decisions these justices make over the next decade will truly make an impact on this state and on our lives in so many ways.
And now, in this final stretch, it’s all going to come down to turnout. Sometimes a cliche is true.
And yes, we all have election fatigue after the races for governor and senator and all through the state legislature last fall. And yes, this race for Wisconsin Supreme Court – the most expensive state court race in American history, by far – has been grueling. And yes, there’s been a whole lot of dark money-fueled nonsense trying to muck up the race right now and things are getting ugly.
But don’t get distracted by the noise. There’s too much at stake to let silly attack ad conservative media nonsense that no one will be talking about come April 5 dominate the conversation. Your vote is your voice, and now is the time to make it heard. This part is pretty simple.
We know how close statewide elections in Wisconsin often are. Presidential campaigns, senate races, gubernatorial contests, and yes, elections for state Supreme Court, have been decided by 1% or less in recent years. Your vote always matters a great deal here.
But with this being an election in the spring, in an off year, the impact your vote will have is massive.
So let’s talk turnout.
Turnout is expected to be high for this election – but relatively high. A high turnout in this kind of election – a Spring Election with no presidential primary on the ballot – would still mean less than half of voting age adults actually casting a ballot. Far less, even. Only twice since the year 2000 has turnout in such an election been over 25%, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). Those came in 2011 – post-Act 10, with more than 34% turnout – and in 2019.
That 2019 election might be the most comparable, timing-wise, to the one that’s happening now. That followed a grueling midterm when races for governor and senator were on the ballot, and was also a race of paramount importance. Turnout in that election was 27.06%, per the WEC. In the 2018 fall midterms, the turnout was nearly 60%.
Not everyone is accustomed to voting in a spring election when the rest of the nation isn't also voting. It’s different when it’s a presidential primary year, but it's important to remind people what's happening and to encourage people to go vote.
The WEC estimates that the voting age population in Wisconsin is about 4.7 million people. The highest turnout in a Wisconsin Supreme Court election in recent history was in 2016, when nearly two million people voted – but that was on the same ballot as the presidential primary, where both parties had contested races, so the turnout percentage was more than 47%. In 2020, the “This is ridiculous” / “You’re incredibly safe to go out” early pandemic election, more than 1.5 million people voted, a turnout percentage of just over 35%. But that, too, had a presidential primary on the ballot (even if Joe Biden had sewn up the nomination at that point). Could turnout reach that 1.5 million-mark again? Marquette pollster Charles Franklin said that’s a real possibility when we talked here on a podcast episode at The Recombobulation Area a few weeks ago.
But compared to fall elections, that’s still not a particularly high turnout number. In the 2020 presidential election, for example, more than 3.3 million Wisconsinites voted. There are a whole lot of people to reach in this final stretch.
For conservatives in Wisconsin, this has become a “turn out the base” election. Daniel Kelly is just not the type of candidate that is going to win over swing voters. He is an election-denying extremist who is a genuine threat to democracy, and he’s been aligned with the further-right wing among Wisconsin Republicans. His views on so many issues are out of step with the mainstream in Wisconsin, particularly with abortion rights, which has become such a salient issue in this race with the 1849 criminal abortion ban hanging in the balance, post-Roe.
Kelly’s path to victory in this race is not through winning over swing voters. It’s by turning out the Republican base.
And while Protasiewicz has a clear fundraising advantage – she reported raising $12.3 million to just $2.3 million for Kelly in the most recent filing period – Kelly has a whole lot of outside spending coming to his aid from the Uihleins and from the lobbyists at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.
And on Monday, Kelly received endorsements from Chief Justice Annette Ziegler and Congressman Mike Gallagher. Sen. Ron Johnson has also been campaigning all over the state for Kelly. The big names among Wisconsin’s Republicans are well aware of the stakes here, too.
It’s going to be important for those on the left not to be complacent and to continue to work to turn out every last vote for Protasiewicz. Recent elections have shown Wisconsin voters that nothing can be taken for granted. For those who want to see change on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, whether you’re an independent voter or an always-blue Democrat, every last vote is going to matter.
So, let’s get to it. It’s time to cast those ballots.
Early voting is already underway. You can find where and when to vote early on the state’s election website (myvote.wi.gov) under the tab “Vote Absentee In Person.” Or just click here to go right to that page.
If last weekend’s snowstorm is any reminder, Wisconsin’s weather can be unpredictable, so it’s a good idea to vote early. I even made a whole video about voting early!
And hey, it was promoted by none other than Julia Louis-Dreyfus!
She also also promoted my column and thread from last week on gerrymandering and the Wisconsin Supreme Court race!
Pretty wild stuff. And if you want to learn more about “Julia’s Downballot Team”, which also includes our friends at As Goes Wisconsin and Motherhood for Good, head over here.
So yes, it is important to vote early, if you can. It’s also important to encourage others to vote, too.
One thing you can do for the next week is to reach out to people to remind them to vote. Text three people a day. Use those social media channels of yours. Ask your friends about how and when they plan to vote. Bring a neighbor with you when you go to vote early. These simple things can really go a long way.
And of course, if you really want to go the extra mile, sign up to canvas and knock doors this weekend and talk directly to voters.
It all matters.
Make sure to preview what’s on your ballot, too. There are many other races happening all over Wisconsin in this Spring Election, from courts to school boards to mayors to city councils. They’re all important, and your vote will absolutely be making a difference in those elections.
And don’t forget that Wisconsin has same-day voter registration, so even if you’re not registered, you can do that when you go vote.
It’s all coming down to turnout, right this very moment. Go vote, Wisconsin.
Head over to myvote.wi.gov for all of your voter information.
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Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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