There may have never been in living memory a more blatant voter suppression scheme outside the former Confederacy than the one Wisconsin Republicans and their federal and state judicial allies attempted this month. With the connivance of the legislature and the Wisconsin Supreme Court they controlled, the Badger State GOP insisted on holding an in-person election at the height of the coronavirus pandemic that was sure to disenfranchise many Democratic-leaning minority voters in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a federal judge from extending time for voters forced to vote by mail to receive and return their absentee ballots.
The big prize for Republicans in this maneuvering was a ten-year term on the state Supreme Court that would have ensured its judicial agents a majority on that powerful tribune until well into the next decade, making a Republican gerrymander of the legislature and the congressional delegation much more likely, along with a voter purge. The intended beneficiary was incumbent judge Daniel Kelly. But in a big upset delayed by slow-arriving absentee ballots (SCOTUS would not allow an extension of the April 7 voting deadline but left in place a ban on the announcement of results until April 13), Kelly’s progressive rival Jill Karofsky won the nonpartisan election, as David Nir reported:
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky has unseated Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly in a key race that will narrow the court’s conservative majority in this crucial swing state. The victory also sets progressives up to take control of the court when its next member is up for election.
Karofsky piled up big majorities in Milwaukee and Dane Counties but also held Kelly to smaller margins in the suburban and rural areas that were the mainstay of Kelly’s political patron Scott Walker and the Republicans controlling the legislature. It was an astonishing win for Wisconsin Democrats and may even reflect a popular backlash against Republican tactics, which risked many lives by demanding that voters who didn’t receive mail ballots in time vote in person even though thousands of poll workers considered polling places so unsafe they didn’t show up.
In what had become an afterthought, Joe Biden easily dispatched Bernie Sanders — who formally endorsed him today — in the Democratic presidential primary by a better than two-to-one margin. But turnout partially driven by the all-but-abandoned primary may have helped Karofsky. Now we will see if Wisconsin Republicans find some way to challenge the Supreme Court results despite their determination to go ahead with a mid-pandemic election. And Wisconsin Democrats have reason to feel more optimistic about the odds of recapturing their state for Biden in November.