MADISON, Wis. — A liberal challenger ousted a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice endorsed by President Donald Trump, overcoming a successful push by Republicans to forge ahead with last week’s election even as numerous other states postponed theirs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Joe Biden also emerged victorious, as expected, Monday in the state’s Democratic presidential primary. Biden’s easy victory became academic when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out, one day after Wisconsin held in-person voting.
But the absentee-ballot-fueled victory by liberal Supreme Court candidate Jill Karofsky was a huge win for Democrats. It reduced conservative control of the court to 4-3, giving liberals a chance to take control in 2023.
Karofsky will now be on the court when the Republican-controlled Legislature tackles redistricting next year, a fight many expect to be decided by the state Supreme Court.
Her win will also certainly be seen as a bellwether in battleground Wisconsin ahead of the November presidential election. Trump barely carried the state four years ago, and both parties see it as critical this year.
Justice Dan Kelly was an early underdog in the Supreme Court race, given the expected higher Democratic turnout since the election was on the same day as the presidential primary. But the Supreme Court outcome became more uncertain as Biden emerged as the presumptive nominee in March and the coronavirus pandemic led to fears of in-person voting and closure of polling locations.
With so much riding on turnout, the Republican push to proceed with the election was viewed by Democrats as a bid to suppress Democratic votes, particularly among minorities in Milwaukee.
Karofsky credited her win to voters rising up and rejecting Republican efforts to suppress turnout.
“People were willing to do that because they wanted their voices to be heard in this election,” she said. “A lot of times on election day we’re wringing our hands because we’re so upset about voter apathy. That wasn’t the problem on Tuesday. People wanted their voices heard.”
Karofsky voter Caleb Andersen, of Milwaukee, worked the polls on election day and thought the hurdles put up to voting in person motivated some people to come out who wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I’m sure there’s some level of vindication,” Andersen said of the Karofsky win. “I do feel there was a lot of voter activity by people who were angered by the entire thing, the lack of availability of absentee ballots.”
Trump’s first apparent comment on the Wisconsin result came in a tweet Tuesday, when he wrote: “GET RID OF BALLOT HARVESTING, IT IS RAMPANT WITH FRAUD. THE USA MUST HAVE VOTER I.D., THE ONLY WAY TO GET AN HONEST COUNT!”
Trump has cast mail-in voting as vulnerable to fraud and has specifically targeted the practice of allowing a third party — a campaign or outside group — to collect and send in large numbers of ballots, often dubbed “ballot harvesting.” Wisconsin allows for this practice but requires photo ID for citizens to obtain an absentee ballot and a witness signature on the ballot.
Turnout in Wisconsin’s election was 34%, with absentee ballots returned accounting for about 71% of all ballots cast. Those numbers were preliminary, based on how many absentee ballots were returned, and will change based on how many are actually counted.
In last year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election, only 12% of all ballots cast were absentee. The total number of absentees returned this year was nearly equal to all ballots cast last year.
Trump last week broke from health experts and called on his supporters to “get out and vote NOW” for Kelly. He later said Democrats were playing politics by trying to postpone the election.
“As soon as I endorsed him, the Wisconsin Democrats said, ‘Oh, let’s move the election two months later,'” Trump said. “Now they talk about, ‘Oh, safety, safety.'”
Trump first voiced support for Kelly at a rally in January, far before concerns over the coronavirus led to calls for a delay in the election.
After Democratic Gov. Tony Evers ordered the election postponed, the highly politicized Wisconsin Supreme Court backed Republicans in proceeding with in-person voting in a ruling issued the day before the April 7 election.
Thousands of voters congregated for hours in long lines on April 7, defying social-distancing guidelines that led to the postponement of primaries in several other states. Milwaukee opened just five of 180 polling places due to a shortage of workers.
Karofsky surged to victory behind a record-high number of absentee ballots — nearly as many as all the votes cast in a state Supreme Court race last year.
The Wisconsin election crystallized what’s expected to be a high-stakes, state-by-state legal fight over how citizens can safely cast their ballots if the coronavirus outbreak persists into the November election. Democrats are arguing for states to be ready to shift to much greater use of absentee and mailed ballots, while Republicans are raising the specter that such elections could lead to increased fraud.
Karofksy’s win is likely to only add fuel to Democrats’ call for more mail-in elections and toughen GOP opposition. Democrats earlier Monday called for moving a May 12 special congressional election in Wisconsin to mail-in only.
Returns weren’t allowed to be reported until Monday due to a quirk in the court battle over the election. Even before the counting began, a group of Milwaukee-area voters filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force a partial revote to protect the “thousands” of voters who they argue were disenfranchised by the turbulent election.
Many voters complained that they had requested absentee ballots that never arrived, forcing them to choose between sitting out the election or risking infection by voting in person. City officials in Milwaukee, as well as Wisconsin’s two U.S. senators, called on the U.S. Postal Service to investigate the complaints.
Evers said on Monday that the election was “a mess that could have been avoided.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of ‘Andersen.’