How Wisconsin Can Elect a Supreme Court Justice Who Will Protect Democracy

Four reasons why engaged citizens can sway the outcome

Robert Kraig February 24, 2023

The following article includes information from an earlier Barn Raiser article and new material bearing on the April 4 Wisconsin Supreme Court election.

In the upcoming Wisconsin Supreme Court general election we need ordinary people to take on a leading role in our democracy.

The stakes on April 4 could not be higher. As Richard Hudson wrote in these pages, “If another conservative is elected to this court, we will lose any chance of restoring fair maps, lose more rights to fair elections, and lose any chance to revisit the state’s primitive 1949 abortion law.”

The election of liberal Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz would give Wisconsin a liberal majority on the state’s Supreme Court for the first time since 2008. A liberal court could do away with the gerrymandered legislative district lines that guarantee the GOP control of both the state senate and assembly. For the first election since 2010, the voters rather than politicians could decide which party controls the legislature. A liberal justice would also mean that the court would be able to overturn the state’s 1849 anti-abortion law and strike down voter suppression legislation.

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice and election denier Dan Kelly, who had been appointed by former governor, Scott Walker, lost the 2020 election that would have kept him on the court.

The election of the Trump-backed, ex-Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly would mean continued erosion of democratic safeguards. After he lost his Supreme Court seat during the 2020 election, Kelly was hired by the Wisconsin GOP and the Republican National Committee. Among his tasks was consulting on a failed scheme to create fake Wisconsin presidential Electors who would support Donald Trump in the Jan. 6, 2021, tally of the Electoral College vote before the joint session of Congress.

If progressives in Wisconsin hope to shift the needle, they must shift their orientation from that of spectators to participants.

According to the data, what is known as “deep canvassing” is a strikingly effective tool for shifting votes. Deep canvassing involves serious two-way conversations with voters about issues with the goal of cutting through the special interest funded propaganda clogging the airwaves, which reduces elections to divisive trigger issues, and helping voters evaluate candidates in terms of the long-term interests of their families and communities.

A new report from Mike Lux at American Family Voices reminds progressive activists and Democratic Party strategists that “old-fashioned field organizing, especially door knocking, is still the single most effective way of reaching voters.”

The report praises Working America, In Union (which targets the many pro-union voters in target states), Center for Popular Democracy, and People’s Action  for “continuing the door-knocking tradition.”

Here in Wisconsin, Wisconsin Conversation Voters and Citizen Action of Wisconsin, the organization I head, are separately organizing door-to-door canvassing efforts around April 4 Supreme Court election. 

Voters in Wisconsin are being subjected to a deluge of well-funded ad campaigns, in what promises to be the most expensive state Supreme Court race in history. The funders of the Supreme Court races should consider putting more money into election-focused community organizing that uses evidence-based engagement tactics like deep canvassing. If more concerned citizens get off the sidelines, we have the potential to turn the tide.

Recent history suggests the April 4 election will be close, meaning campaign tactics that emphasize citizen organizing and deep canvassing could sway the outcome.

Four reasons that engaged citizens can sway the outcome

First, Wisconsin’s new normal of historically close margins gives engaged citizens the potential power to change outcomes. The state’s presidential elections were within 1% in 2000, 2004, 2016 and 2020. Now midterm elections are becoming just as close, as national issues have displaced more provincial concerns during the pitched battle between Democrats and the MAGA wing of the GOP over the fate of democracy. In 2011 the Wisconsin Supreme Court race was so close it came down to a dramatic recount. This means the upcoming Supreme Court race can also expect narrow margins in which even a slight swing to either direction makes a big difference.

Second, although the Wisconsin electorate has voted roughly 50/50 in most presidential elections for the last two decades, on a county-by-county level the vote composition has been changing rapidly. Voters in Wisconsin’s urban areas and older suburbs are trending more Democratic each cycle, and those in rural areas, towns and exurbs are increasingly moving to the GOP. In the 2022 Senate race, Democrats gained 87,000 net votes in the 15 largest counties, but Ron Johnson benefitted from double digit increases in vote share in 20 predominantly rural counties.

Some of this change is demographic and a result of migration patterns. But the rapidity of the shift indicates that the larger influence is changes in individual voting behavior. This means organizers cannot put all of their eggs in urban, rural or suburban organizing, especially in Wisconsin where the population is distributed across all three sectors.

The benefits of increased door-to-door organizing could be especially large in Wisconsin’s rural areas, which account for roughly 30% of the state’s population, where Democrats have disinvested and there is comparatively little community organizing. Research on successful candidates shows that local roots and knowledge, and the ability to listen and form relationships, are critical to increasing Democratic vote share in rural areas, strongly suggesting that deeper community organizing could help slow the rightward drift.

Third, Wisconsin has evolved into a state where base turnout is the dominant vote driver. Over the last two decades the proportion of Wisconsin ticket-splitters had declined by 75%. Only 5% of voters switched parties in selecting their preferred gubernatorial and Senate candidates this year. With 95% of Wisconsin voters not splitting their tickets in 2022, it was the ability of Democrats to match high GOP turnout that put moderates in a position to benefit from the marginal impact of a much smaller group of swing voters.

Fourth, more spending on expensive television ads are not the most effective way to reach voters. Instead, the Wisconsin midterm U.S. Senate race provides encouraging proof that ramping up investments in deep canvassing, and more activists willing to get off the sidelines and make phone calls and knock doors, is more effective in countering the scurrilous billionaire-funded propaganda than responding in kind.

A growing body of evidence indicates that many voters are not purely for one side or the other, nor are they moderate. Instead, they are cross-pressured. Many who may be triggered by racialized ads fomenting fear about crime and immigration also support progressive policies. This is why recent research on rural areas shows, contrary to the conventional wisdom of many Democratic consultants, progressive populist messages are highly effective.

As a result, a deeper conversation where a volunteer from the same region listens, talks through misleading claims they have seen on television if they are raised, and walks through the candidate positions on the issues the voter identifies as most important to them and their communities, is more impactful than traditional campaign tactics. One study found it 102 times more effective than TV and other traditional campaign tactics.

Starting in 2020, the organization I lead, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, and other affiliates of the national organizing network People’s Action, started using a deep canvass methodology, drawn from traditional community organizing, where volunteers and local organizers have tens of thousands of in-depth conversations with voters.  In Wisconsin, in 2022, we made a combined 109,000 phone calls and door knocks in rural, suburban, and urban areas.

Getting to the scale of deep conversations needed to counteract the toxin of propaganda afflicting our elections requires a change in investment strategy. We need to invest in the organizing infrastructure and training that would empower citizens to, collectively, have millions of real conversations with other voters who live in their communities. This person-to-person connection at a large enough scale can impact statewide campaigns like the upcoming April 4 Supreme Court outcome, but only if more citizens get off the sidelines and play an active and constructive role in reclaiming American democracy.

Robert Kraig

Robert Kraig is the Executive Director, Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Robert has two decades of experience in social justice and labor organizing. He took the helm in September 2009 at the height of the Great Recession when social justice groups like Citizen Action of Wisconsin were in financial danger, and has led a dynamic team of organizers in rebuilding it into one of the leading progressive forces in Wisconsin. Robert is the former Wisconsin State Council Director for SEIU, where he helped develop and win the passage of several policy innovations which enabled over twelve thousand low-wage workers to form unions. Robert's focus is on the nexus between communications and progressive strategy. He has an academic background in political persuasion, earning a PhD in Rhetoric at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1999. He has published one book and multiple peer reviewed academic articles on the history of American political rhetoric.

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