Ah, Wisconsin. The home of cheese curds, millions of cows and the prince of darkness himself, Aaron Rodgers. It also happens to be one of the most important and competitive battleground states in the country, as four of the past six presidential elections in Wisconsin have been decided by less than a percentage point. Given its reputation as a closely-fought swing state, it remains a top battleground going into the 2024 presidential race. However, a more important election is occurring in the state this April, as the race for a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has massive implications for the state.
Currently, conservatives hold a 4-3 majority on the Court, a majority which they have held since 2008. This majority has allowed the Republican-controlled legislature to get away with passing legislation with no check on their power. But the decision by 20-year incumbent justice Pat Roggensack — yes, you read that right, that’s the name of an actual human being — to not run for another 10-year term has opened the door for a more liberal justice to win the seat. If this happened, then the court’s liberal wing would be in the majority for the first time in 15 years. Since the election will determine which wing has a majority on the court, the race is expected to bring in over $6 million of campaign contributions. And unlike the California senate race that I discussed in my column last week, donating to this race would be worth it due to its competitiveness and implications for the court’s balance of power.
If the liberal wing reclaimed the majority on the court, there are many key issues plaguing the badger state that the court could quickly take up. One of the most notable is the state’s abortion law. After the formerly respected Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization set the country back 50 years and more by overturning Roe v. Wade, the state’s ancient 1849 abortion law took effect. The draconian law is a near-total abortion ban, with the lone exception being to save the life of the mother when necessary. This puts Wisconsin on par with states like Texas and other misguided Southern states who have enacted total abortion bans. Following the Dobbs ruling, Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, both Democrats, have led efforts to challenge the law, but have yet to succeed. But if a liberal justice wins in the April election, the likelihood that the law is overturned by the court increases dramatically. While passing a new abortion law would likely be a long political battle given that the state legislature is controlled by Republicans, overturning the 1849 law would be a massive step in the right direction for the state.
Another important issue that the court may take up is the state’s legislative maps. After Republicans took control of the legislature after the 2010 midterms, Wisconsin has become one of the most gerrymandered states in the country on the statewide level. The legislative maps for the state assembly and senate are dominated by contorted districts that dilute Democratic votes across the state. This was most clearly on display in 2018 when despite Democrats winning the popular vote by over 8 percent, Republicans still won over 60 percent of seats in the state assembly. While advocacy groups have devoted attention to trying to get rid of these maps, the conservative majority on the court has not done anything to fix the state’s broken maps. The maps have voided the state’s legislative elections of competition, leading to decreased election turnout and diluting the votes of thousands of Wisconsinites. This would be a prime issue that a potential liberal court majority could take up, as the overturning of these egregious gerrymanders could lead to the state having fair legislative maps that properly reflect its competitive electorate for the first time in over a decade. Similar to the abortion law, drawing these maps would likely take a while, but the process would be worth it to deliver fair representation to the people of Wisconsin.
This April, the voters of Wisconsin have the power to change their state for the better. Winning a liberal majority on the court would open the door to overturn the policies and maps that have repressed the state for far too long. Not only will this election be one of the most watched of this year, but it will be pivotal in determining the future of Wisconsin and what kind of state it will be in the coming years.