Wisconsin? Really? (Every Vote Counts)

By , April 6, 2011

The most expensive judicial election campaign in history. In Wisconsin? Really?

This is a news story that attracts me from all my perspectives (Wisconsin native, journalist, lawyer, teacher, and of course critic).

All night, I’ve been checking in on this Wisconsin “bellweather” election — an amazing cliffhanger. (Late Wednesday, with all precincts reporting, the AP now reports the liberal candidate now leads by 204 votes, or 0.014%.)

In Wisconsin, many citizens feel betrayed and violated by the actions of the Republican governor and legislature, barring collective bargaining by public-employee unions which didn’t support the governor’s election (while retaining it for other public-employee unions).  Many others, of course, believe the Republican rhetoric blaming public-employee unions for the state’s budget deficit (which appeared only after the new Republican legislative majority enacted huge tax cuts for the wealthy).

Let’s be clear: it’s very unlikely that this election (for Supreme Court Justice) will change the outcome of this particular battle.  (The current law will likely be stricken down as invalid because its enactment was in violation of the state’s Open Meeting law, but the legislature will re-enact the law anyway, and I doubt the Wisconsin Supreme Court will strike down the law on other grounds before new elections lead to its reversal.)

But just weeks after the political adventures surrounding the collective-bargaining provisions, this was the first opportunity voters had to weigh in — and despite the overwhelming 2:1 lead that the conservative incumbent had (just a few weeks ago), exactly half of Wisconsin’s voters voted for each candidate.

Where are the lessons here? Well, let’s start with the obvious: every vote really does count.  This election will probably end with the winner leading by just a few hundred votes out of 1.5 million — probably less than one-fiftieth of one percent difference between the vote counts for the two candidates.

Another lesson: money was immensely influential, probably pivotal. In the final days of the election, “independent groups” spent at least $3.5 million (probably more than $5 million). While a substantial amount was spent by union supporters, most was spent by business groups supporting the conservative incumbent.

Wisconsin Republican legislators facing recall campaign should be worried — even in districts which voted 60% or 70% in favor of the incumbent Supreme Court justice in this election.



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