MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin residents may be more worried about whether they’ll be able to feed their families than voting as the coronavirus shutdown stretches on. But someone has to pick the state’s next Supreme Court justice in Tuesday’s spring election.
The ballot features a matchup between conservative incumbent Justice Dan Kelly and liberal challenger Jill Karofsky. Two months ago the stage looked set for Karofsky to make a strong run at Kelly, with a presidential primary expected to draw big Democratic turnout.
Then things changed. Joe Biden surged ahead of Bernie Sanders in other states, pushing the Vermont senator to the brink of elmination and causing a big dropoff in interest. Next came the virus and Gov. Tony Evers’ decision to order everyone to stay at home to avoid infection.
A number of other states have postponed their spring elections to protect voters and poll workers from the virus, but Evers and Republican legislators didn’t. In addition to the presidential primary and court race, hundreds of local officials are on the ballot. Most of their terms expire in mid-April; Evers and the GOP have said a delay could leave those offices vacant for weeks or longer.
Kelly and Karofsky both have dropped all in-person appearances. It’s a jarring departure from just a few months ago, when they were going at each other in multiple debates.
The race is officially nonpartisan. But Karofsky, a Dane County judge, has Democratic backing — the party has handed her about $1.3 million in campaign donations this year — and Kelly has Republican support. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker appointed him to the high court in 2016 and President Donald Trump endorsed him. The state GOP has given him $65,000 this year.
The outcome won’t change the court’s conservative tilt, but a Karofsky win would narrow the conservative majority to 4-3 and give liberals a chance at control in 2023 if they can defeat Chief Justice Pat Roggensack that year.
Karofsky has treated every face-to-face meeting with Kelly as a showdown, branding him as corrupt because he frequently sides with conservative groups before the court. Kelly returned fire, accusing Karofsky of slandering him and impugning the court’s integrity.
Now they’re tweeting reminders to people to vote absentee, running television ads, making phone calls and texting in pursuit of voters who are more worried about whether they might lose their jobs, how to care for their children and how to get to the grocery store as the pandemic drags on. As turnout dwindles so does Karofsky’s chance to win, said Sara Benesh, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist.
“We’re in unmarked territory here,” Benesh said. “The state Supreme Court election already disadvantages the challenger. There’s no partisan label. It’s in the spring when nobody votes. … I’m sure the election isn’t the first thing on anyone’s mind right now.”
Karofsky said she’s focusing on encouraging people to vote.
“None of us could see any of this coming,” Karofsky said. “In a 50-mile race, something is always going to go wrong. You’re going to get a blister. You’re going to put a shirt on that’s never bothered you before and suddenly you’re chafing. The people who will be most successful in this race are those who can think through it and solve the problem. That’s all I’m doing right now.”
Kelly, a self-described introvert, said he was uncomfortable campaigning face-to-face when the race began but grew to enjoy it. Now he misses the interaction, he said. Fewer people have been tuning into his video presentations than would show up at an in-person appearance, he said.
“It all came to a roaring, screeching halt,” Kelly said. “I miss that (interaction) terribly. We do everything we can to continue outreach online but it’s just not the same. We generally don’t get as many people that way when we do these things online. There’s no way to replicate the intimate conversations you have with somebody.”
The spring ballot also features a statewide referendum on a crime victims rights constitutional amendment. The constitution and state law already lay out a host of crime victim rights, including the right to privacy, the right to be treated with dignity and the right to attend court proceedings. The amendment largely duplicates that existing language but goes further in several areas.
Victims would have the right to seal information or records that could be used to locate them; give them the right to be heard at plea and parole hearings; and opt out of participating in depositions or discovery proceedings conducted by defense attorneys or opposing attorneys in civil matters, a provision that could block criminal defendants from bringing civil lawsuits against them.
Several states including California, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, North Dakota and South Dakota have adopted similar amendments. It’s caused some law enforcement agencies to limit public information about crimes. The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the amendments, saying they favor victims at the expense of the accused, who are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.
Supporters have dubbed the amendments “Marsy’s Law” for California college student Marsalee Nicholas, who was killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1983. Her brother, Henry Nicholas, has bankrolled efforts to put the amendments in place across the country.