Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Voted Absentee Before Making Everyone Else Vote in Person

Amid coronavirus pandemic, voters line up in Wisconsin to cast their ballots.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, voters line up in Wisconsin to cast their ballots. Photo: Sara Stathas for the Washington Post via Getty Images/2020 The Washington Post

Wisconsin Republicans were dealt a humiliating defeat on Monday. Daniel Kelly, a conservative State Supreme Court justice, lost his reelection bid to Jill Karofsky, his progressive challenger, by a decisive margin. (Returns are still incoming, but as of Monday night, Karofsky was up by 120,000 votes in the nonpartisan race; the New York Times reports that the last election for a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat was decided by fewer than 30,000 votes.) The result shocked members of both parties, in no small part because the state GOP did all it could to guarantee the opposite outcome. The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced most Wisconsites into seclusion, but earlier this month, the Republican-held legislature rejected Governor Evers’s efforts to postpone the election, forcing people to vote in person and risk infection. (In accordance with public-health guidelines, no other U.S. state is holding an in-person election in April.)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority upheld the move in a clear bid to secure partisan advantage. The virus has wreaked havoc on Milwaukee’s black residents in particular, killing dozens; Republicans were counting on fears of further devastation to keep others away from the polls, prompting lower turnout in the population centers where they typically perform the worst. In fact, the opposite seems to have occurred: Turnout in and around cities like Milwaukee and Madison far outstripped the state’s more conservative rural counties, lifting Karofsky to victory. It remains unclear how many Wisconsinites were imperiled or made sick by the Republicans’ anti-democracy gambit, but its failure throws a wrench in the party’s looming gerrymander efforts, and that’s what Democrats were hoping for.

Even so, the effort’s brazenness boggles the mind. For much of the past week, a defining emblem of the Wisconsin GOP’s civic irresponsibility during this pandemic was a video of state assembly Speaker Robin Vos, decked out in full protective gear, a mask, and rubber gloves, assuring his constituents on Election Day, “You are incredibly safe to go out.” (Since the video made the rounds, the cumulative number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin grew from 2,578 to 3,428 and is still rising.) But Vos’s willingness — and, by extension, that of his party — to expose everyday Wisconsinites to dangers he himself was hesitant to risk is more widespread than the video illustrates. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Daniel Bice reported on Monday that all seven of the state’s Supreme Court justices — and, most significantly, all four who ruled in favor of requiring Wisconsin voters to cast their ballots in person last week — voted absentee, either by mail or early in person, ensuring that they wouldn’t have to join the thousands of people waiting in line last Tuesday, risking their lives.

Local Democrats took notice. “Republicans on the Supreme Court are corrupt hypocrites who forced Wisconsinites to vote in person during a public-health crisis when they themselves enjoyed the safety of casting their ballots absentee,” Courtney Beyer, spokesperson for the state’s Democratic Party, told the Journal Sentinel. “They are luckier than the thousands of others who tried to do the same and were unable to,” added State Senator Chris Larson, a Milwaukee Democrat.

More from Bice:

Just how unusual was this?

Very …

Voting records show Supreme Court justices — especially the conservative members — don’t generally like voting absentee. 

Kelly and fellow conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn have gone to polls and voted in person on election day in each of the five previous elections. Bradley, another conservative, has done the same in four of the past five contests, and Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, a conservative, voted in person in three of five.

The two liberal justices — Rebecca Dallet and Ann Walsh Bradley — were acting in accord with their past practices when they voted absentee this time. Walsh Bradley has voted absentee in all of the past five elections, while Dallet has done the same three times.

The only outlier was Justice Annette Ziegler. Unlike her fellow conservatives, she has a preference for voting absentee, having done so in three of the last five elections.

Put simply, the precise motivations for why each individual justice voted the way they did have not been made explicit by any of them, but their behavior during this election, their first and perhaps only during a pandemic, marked a significant departure from most of their usual voting habits. Conveniently, this departure allowed each of the court’s conservatives to avoid the perils of crowded in-person voting that they were on the verge of condemning their statesmen to. (In Milwaukee, the typical election features 180 polling locations; last week’s had only five, forcing voters to line up for hours.) It surely made the justices’ decision easier knowing that they’d be facing none of its biggest risks. Its incongruity had much of the same effect as donning a hazmat suit and assuring the public that everything was fine.

Now that they’ve been thwarted, the stakes have only become more urgent. The past decade has seen Wisconsin transform into a hotbed of partisan rancor, with desperate Republicans pursuing all manner of anti-democratic measures to enshrine minority rule at the state level. Voter suppression has been one of their many tools, and the pandemic will likely present more opportunities as November approaches. Their success could have national implications as well. Wisconsin is viewed as a crucial swing state in the presidential race, and GOP redistricting would inevitably tilt Congress in the party’s favor. Republicans on the local and national levels have already decried what expanded voting options, implemented to stop voters from contracting or transmitting the coronavirus, might mean for their electoral prospects. “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it,” President Trump wrote on Twitter. “Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” Georgia House Speaker David Ralston added that greater reliance on voting by mail “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives.” The stakes are clear, as are the lengths to which the party is willing to go to avert losing power. If Republican legislators, abetted by conservative justices, have no qualms about tossing voters into the maw of a deadly virus, just so they can win a Supreme Court seat, there’s no telling what even greater desperation might provoke.

Wisconsin Voters Braved COVID While Justices Voted Absentee