Wisconsin’s Election Today Could Have Significant Implications for Gerrymandering in the State

Supermajority Education Fund

April 7, 2020

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, attempted to suspend in-person voting in the statewide election scheduled for today due to the coronavirus pandemic. The conservative-majority Supreme Court, however, blocked the Governor’s order, and the election proceeded today as planned — despite many advocates’ concerns about poll worker safety and turnout. 

The confusing series of events leading up to the election itself shows why this election is so important. In addition to voting for a Democratic presidential candidate, Wisconsinites will also vote on an open seat in the state’s supreme court, which currently has a 5-2 conservative majority. Shifting the balance of this court would help lay the groundwork for non-partisan redistricting so that the state’s Assembly — which has had a Republican supermajority since 2011, the same year that the Republican party redrew the district maps using 2010 Census results — can better reflect the electorate of the state.

“Our state, really, is a very purple state,” Carlene Bechen, the fair maps organizer for Wisconsin Voices, told Supermajority News. “We should always be a toss-up state.” 

Bechen noted that before Donald Trump won Wisconsin by razor-thin margins in 2016, Barack Obama won the state twice. Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin also won her 2016 re-election by a pretty comfortable margin — a victory that especially “tells you that we are a purple state,” Bechen said.

The incumbent in today’s Supreme Court seat race, Justice Daniel Kelly, was appointed to his current position on the Supreme Court by former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker after Kelly defended the 2011 Republican redistricting plan as an attorney. Kelly faces a challenge from Dane County Judge Jill Karofksy, who has been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders

Kaorfsky’s victory could not only help lay the groundwork for sorely needed non-partisan redistricting in the state but provide a balanced court in front of which “the very issues of democracy and voting rights that are at play in the current election are very likely to come,” Ruth Coniff, a journalist at the Wisconsin Examiner, wrote in a March 30 opinion piece. These issues include not just gerrymandering, but also voting rights and the balance of power in our state government, Coniff added.

For example, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has not yet heard a crucial voting purge case. In January, an Ozaukee County judge sided with a conservative advocacy group and ordered the state to take more than 200,000 voters off the rolls by November 2020. An appeals court found that voters should not be kicked off the rolls, but as Maria Cordona wrote for The Hill on Sunday, the results of today’s Supreme Court election could ultimately contribute to the decision in this case.

Ben Winkler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, told NPR last December that the kind of purge at the heart of this case is intended to knock more Democratic voters than Republican voters off the rolls. He added that most of the people who would be purged are people who have moved. But thousands of people are purged who should still be eligible to vote in Wisconsin, Winkler said. 

In the past, incumbent Justice Kelly has stayed away from the voter purge lawsuit, but he has been on the record saying that he might rejoin the issue following the Supreme Court election. If this purge does go through, this could spell further trouble for voting fairness in the state. 

“Knowing that Republicans and Republican-allied groups are trying to knock voters off the rolls just lights a fire under us to make sure we talk to anyone who is not registered now or could be at risk of being purged and make sure that they know exactly how to vote, how to same-day register, and have a plan to get to the polls,” Winkler told NPR. 

Although the outcome of today’s Supreme Court election could affect the future of Wisconsin’s Assembly district maps, the maps are already set for this upcoming national election. Bechen says that any transparent, non-partisan redistricting will happen when the Census results come back in March of next year, and in 2022 when the maps will be redrawn.