Wisconsin votes on balance of state Supreme Court as abortion, election rights decisions loom

Posted at 8:37 AM, Feb 21, 2023

Wisconsin has long been known as a bellwether state and today’s state Supreme Court primary election could have consequences throughout the U.S.

Tuesday’s vote will whittle the field of candidates from four to two. In April, voters will decide on the state’s newest justice. With an evenly divided court, the newest justice will dictate whether conservatives or liberals will hold the edge.

Retired Justice Janine Geske says the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“I think it’s probably the most important election, at least in my lifetime, for members of the Supreme Court,” she said.

The race has garnered national attention because the winner could hold the key to several pivotal votes on some of the state’s most important issues. Geske says arguably the biggest is the battle over abortion rights. The court is expected to decide whether Wisconsin’s 1849 statute that banned abortions except to save a mother’s life is enforceable.

“It is clear that is going to be an issue for the courts,” she said. “The attorney general is filing a lawsuit based on the old statute, and something is going to go to the court. Voters are thinking they want somebody on one side of that issue or the other.”

Geske says two other issues are front and center in this election as well: the future of voting rights ahead of the 2024 presidential election, and the potential to revisit the redistricting of legislative maps if the court leans liberal for the first time in 15 years.

“It’s access to voting, who gets to vote and certainly the hours,” she said. “If your only hours are during the day, people who work can’t go, or people who work certain hours if they don’t have weekend access.”

Marquette Law School poll director Charles Franklin said those three issues are among the key reasons why this will likely be the most expensive Wisconsin Supreme Court race in state history. But despite the $7 million spent in advertising thus far, Franklin says history suggests voter turnout will be low on Feb. 21.

“In recent years in the primary, the vote we're having now have seen turnout of just about 15 or 16 percent of voting age population,” he said. “That's quite low, and so in a low turnout race like this one, in a sense, it means that every vote counts even more.”

Franklin says this is the first Wisconsin Supreme Court race in more than 20 years where there are two conservative and two liberal-leaning candidates on the ballot.

Reporting provided by Scripps News Milwaukee station WTMJ.