Celebrating a surprise victory in the state’s premier contest, Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler declared after votes from the chaotic April 7 election were finally counted Monday, “Tonight, despite the GOP’s savage and shameful attempt to suppress votes and steal Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election, Judge Jill Karofsky prevailed. It’s a victory for justice and democracy in an election that should never have taken place in person.”
Karofsky, a judge on the Dane County Circuit Court bench, had challenged incumbent Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, an appointee of former Republican governor Scott Walker and a favorite of conservative Republicans. As the April 7 election approached, Democratic Governor Tony Evers sought to postpone in-person voting so that Wisconsinites who had been ordered to stay at home would not be forced to go to the polls.
The plan Evers advanced, which mirrored those embraced by Democratic and Republican governors in other states, would have extended absentee voting so ballots could be cast safely at a time when the virus has infected thousands and taken more than 150 lives in Wisconsin. The Evers proposal would have addressed two challenges. The first was that hundreds of voting stations had closed because not enough poll workers were willing to operate them; in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, the number of polling places was cut from 180 to five. The second was that because so many people had requested absentee ballots—almost 1.3 million—local election administrators were overwhelmed and needed more time to process the requests, just as postal workers needed more time to get ballots delivered and returned.
But Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald refused to cooperate with the governor. Cheered on by President Trump and national Republicans, the GOP legislative leaders obstructed Evers at every turn—going to such extremes that Wikler objected that “the GOP remorselessly weaponizes courts, election laws, and coronavirus itself to disenfranchise the voters who stand in its way.”
The Republican intentions were blatantly obvious. “[The] battle over the court is the reason that the GOP defied pleas to postpone the vote,” explained Charlie Sykes, a veteran conservative commentator from Wisconsin. “Republicans calculated that holding the election in the midst of the pandemic gave incumbent conservative justice Dan Kelly a better chance of holding his seat.” A Kelly win was such a high GOP priority that Trump personally campaigned for the justice and was still tweeting encouragement for the candidate and the suppression schemes through last Tuesday.
Evers kept offering to work with the Republicans to find a compromise that would respect public safety and democracy. But they openly mocked him. Finally, on Monday, April 6, Evers announced that in-person voting had to be postponed for reasons of public safety, Republicans sued, and the conservative majority on the state Supreme Court ordered the election to go forward.
Hours later, conservatives on the US Supreme Court intervened to constrict absentee voting. In a stinging dissent, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote that while a lower court had acted amid the virus outbreak “to safeguard the availability of absentee voting in Wisconsin’s spring election,” the high court “now intervenes at the eleventh hour to prevent voters who have timely requested absentee ballots from casting their votes.”
For many immunocompromised voters, that was precisely the case. They were disenfranchised.
For others, election day brought a brutal choice. Voters who had applied for absentee ballots but not yet received them were forced to choose between obeying orders to stay at home or making difficult treks to the polls. It was an especially hard choice in Milwaukee, where coronavirus cases spiked in the African American community as the day approached. “People died fighting for the right to vote, and now people might die if they vote,” said Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. “Politicians are silencing the voices of black and brown people by putting us in harm’s way for their own partisan gain.”
But thousands refused to be silenced. In Milwaukee, many waited in lines (spaced at a safe distance) for more than two hours. Some braved thunderstorms and hail. They were angry and determined to deliver a message. Gretchen Fennema, a 46-year-old Milwaukeean, applied for an absentee ballot for herself, as did her 70-year-old father, who suffers from bronchitis. The ballots never came. “So we decided Monday night that we were going to have to go,” said the laid-off worker. “There was no other option. We were not going to miss voting. I cannot remember when I ever missed an election.” Fennema and her dad headed to Riverside High School in Milwaukee, waited in a line of cars, and finally cast a curbside ballot. As they drove away, Gretchen attached an “I Voted” sticker to the bandana that served as her mask and posted a selfie with a message for the legislators and the courts: “Fuck you, Wisconsin GOP.”
Fennema told me on election day that she voted for Judge Karofsky, a candidate backed by unions and progressive groups in the technically nonpartisan court race. Because of all the court interventions, the final count was delayed until six days after in-person balloting was finished. When clerks began to report the numbers, jaws dropped. Thanks to a surge of last-minute absentee ballots and courageous in-person voting on April 7, Karofsky won a victory the candidate admitted was “in many, many ways improbable.” She beat Kelly by more than 160,000 votes—for a 55-45 advantage statewide. In Milwaukee County, the margin was 67-33.
That wasn’t the only win. Despite economic turbulence associated with the pandemic, voters in school districts across the state backed referendums to support public education. In Milwaukee, an $87 million referendum was approved by a 78-22 margin. Not all victories were that big; in the historic industrial center of Racine, a plan to increase school spending by $1 billion over the next 30 years prevailed by five votes. Referendums, which many had thought were doomed because of the economic downturn, succeeded everywhere. So, too, did progressive candidates; the Working Families Party hailed victories for local posts in Milwaukee, Racine, and Dane County (Madison).
The WFP acknowledged that the fight over voter suppression was far from finished, as did Democratic Party chair Wikler. For her part, Judge Karofsky was circumspect. “Although we were successful in this race, the circumstances under which this election was conducted were simply unacceptable, and raise serious concerns for the future of our democracy,” she said on Monday night. “Nobody in this state or in this country should have been forced to choose between their safety and participating in an election. Too many were unable to have their voices heard because they didn’t feel safe leaving their home or their absentee ballots weren’t counted. Wisconsinites showed their resiliency by overcoming many of the barriers created by the legislature and the courts to try and silence voters in this state, but nobody should ever be denied their right to vote.”
Gretchen Fennema has one more thing to say. Reflecting on Karofsky’s victory, the woman who had worn a homemade mask and, with her 70-year-old father, braved a pandemic to vote, tweeted, “Worth it.”