Wisconsin Supreme Court election may signal a Michigan-esque political shift

The blowout win by liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz could open the door to ending gerrymandering and granting abortion rights.

A man sternly looks over at a woman who is out of focus

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Republican-backed Dan Kelly and Democratic-supported Janet Protasiewicz participate in a debate Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Madison, Wis.

Much like you would on your street, it’s best to keep an eye on your neighbors.

Wisconsin is dealing with many of the same issues Michigan has faced over the past decade. From gerrymandering in the state legislature, to denials about the true outcome of the 2020 presidential election, to the right to receive abortion care.

The Badger State held an election last week that could affect all three of those issues.

Milwaukee County judge Janet Protasiewicz beat conservative Daniel Kelly by 10 points in a very purple state. The win gives liberal justices a 4-3 edge on the state supreme court for the first time in 15 years.

Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Anya van Wagtendonk tells WDET that with the reconfigured court, challenges to the state’s legislative maps are coming.

“The way that the maps are set up tends to give Republicans a significant advantage in the state legislature. And so Democrats in particular feel that this is an opportunity to perhaps revisit the maps in a way that would make them reflect more of that 50-50 sense, rather than making more of the state safe for Republican electeds.”

A challenge to a 19th century ban on abortion is coming as well. And much like in Michigan, where it spurred Democrats to gain control of the Governorship and the State Legislature for the first time in 40 years, young people showed up.

“I spoke to a youth organizer… and he was having trouble finding people who hadn’t already voted — students who hadn’t already voted — because there was just so much energy and information,” says van Wagtendonk. “And again, he attributed that to the issue of abortion, that this became a personal issue for a lot of young people.”

In 2018, Michigan voters created the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. The group’s creation stopped much of the partisan gerrymandering in the state. Wisconsin also has a redistricting commission, but the Republican-controlled legislature ignored those maps in favor of their own. A move that was upheld by the then-conservative state supreme court.

“Some experts have described it as the most gerrymandered maps in the country,” says van Wagtendonk. “So depending on who you are and your political standing, Democrats tend to feel that they are shut out of elected power, elected politics.”

Republicans have a super majority in the Wisconsin senate and a 10 seat advantage in the state assembly.

Joe Biden won the state in 2020 and Gov. Tony Evers — a democrat — won reelection in 2022 by 3.4%.

The election of Janet Protasiewicz could bring about a sea of change, according to van Wagtendonk.

“This offers an opportunity with a liberal majority to re-examine those maps with a different set of perspectives from these different justices.”

Janet Protasiewicz will be sworn in on Aug. 1, 2023.

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.