Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Election Through the Lens of the Super Bowl

The spring election has a chance to restore a level playing field to Wisconsin's elections

Richard Hudson February 7, 2023

Here’s a question to “kick around” on Superbowl Sunday. What if the team that wins the Super Bowl gets to change the rules for the coming year? What if last year the Rams had made a new scoring rule: In every game, the home team gets 6 points for a touchdown, but the away team only gets 4. Fans would go crazy! Nobody would think it’s fair to give one team such a big advantage.

But that’s exactly what happened in 2011 in Wisconsin. Republicans had won the Super Bowl–both houses in the legislature and Scott Walker as governor. So they changed the rules. They met in secret and re-drew all the voting districts in the state, guaranteeing that Republicans could never lose power in the legislature. Never. In spite of the fact that Wisconsin voters are roughly split 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats.

That 50/50 split is why statewide elections are always close in Wisconsin. Biden won in 2020 by less than 1% of the total votes cast. But in the legislature, it was a Republican landslide. Republicans took about 2/3 of the seats in both the Assembly and the Senate, leaving the Democrats with only 1/3. Republicans got six points for each touchdown and Democrats only got four. It’s been the same in every election since 2011.

Gerrymandering also gives Republicans the same advantage in the House of Representatives in Washington, because the House districts are gerrymandered too. Of the eight Wisconsin seats in the House, Republicans hold 6 and Democrats only 2.

How is this possible? Because Republicans redrew all the districts, ignoring the borders of neighborhoods, cities and counties, where people have common issues and interests. Instead, they drew a complicated maze, criss-crossing local borders. They looped small Democratic neighborhoods into adjacent regions with enough Republican voters, to outweigh the Democrats. They packed the leftover Democrats into mostly urban districts, but those districts didn’t matter any more, because the remaining Democratic votes across the state were always outnumbered by Republicans, delivering a 6 to 4 win every time. Very clever, even legal, but totally unfair.

Most Wisconsinites would prefer to play fair. Last year 80% of voters across the state asked for fair maps that would eliminate gerrymandering. But the Republicans in the legislature and the Conservatives on the WI Supreme Court ignored the will of the people and kept the old maps from 2011 for another ten years!

A sign in support of Fair Maps in Wisconsin.
The Fair Maps Coalition is a campaign aiming to end gerrymandering in Wisconsin. (Tony Webster/Flickr)

Fortunately, you have a chance to even the playing field again, by voting in the Supreme Court primary election on February 21 and the spring election on April 4.

The court now has a Conservative majority that consistently sides with Republicans and conservative plaintiffs. Remember when they eliminated dropboxes? Remember when, in the midst of Covid, they struck down the health department’s policy on indoor gatherings? Remember when they kept Republican Fred Prehn on the DNR board even though his term had expired? Republicans asked for those decisions and the conservative Court delivered.

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. What other right-wing initiatives will be rubber-stamped by a newly empowered Conservative court?

Before you go to the polls on February 21, look carefully at the four candidates: Progressives Janet Protasiewicz and Everett Mitchell; Conservatives Jennifer Dorow and Daniel Kelly. Read about their backgrounds. Listen to their public debates.

You can only vote for one candidate in February. There will be no party affiliation on your ballot – no “R,” no “D.” And only the top two vote-getters, regardless of political leaning, will advance to the April election. This means both progressive candidates could be eliminated in February and the Conservatives will control the court.

Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers
The hearing room for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. (Adam Fagen/Flickr)

Beware of the flood of ads over the next two months. Wealthy conservatives and PACs – most outside of Wisconsin – will spend tens of millions of dollars supporting the Conservatives and attacking Progressives, because Wisconsin is a crucial swing state in national elections. So don’t be swayed by the distortions and lies. Your future and the future of your children are at stake.

Vote for the candidate who you feel will make fair and thoughtful decisions. And even more important, the candidate who can win statewide. Ironically, gerrymandering doesn’t affect this election. Your vote will count regardless of how gerrymandered your district is.

This may be the most critical spring election in Wisconsin history. Best of all, the outcome could even restore a level playing field to our elections, so each team always gets six points for every touchdown.

Richard Hudson

Richard Hudson is a retired PBS producer who enjoys photography, astronomy, music, and the beautiful woods and lakes of rural Wisconsin. He supports progressive causes, facts over lies, and Democracy.

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