Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack, a member of the court's conservative majority, announced this week that she plans to seek re-election next year. Three possible challengers' names have surfaced and there's sure to be a spirited campaign.
But over at Wisconsin Reporter, columnist Kevin Binversie says it's time to end the “charade” of nonpartisanship in Wisconsin’s judicial elections. If we can’t do away with the judicial elections altogether, he argues, we might as well make the races partisan, and allow judges to affiliate with political parties.
“At least that way there appears to be more truth in advertising,” he writes. “At least voters know where the candidates stand.”
Binversie should not hold his breath waiting for Gov. Scott Walker or legislative Republicans to push for such a change. Unlike other electoral modifications that Walker does support — voter ID, the elimination of same-day registration — the establishment of partisan judicial elections would likely benefit Democrats.
To understand why nonpartisan races help Republicans, look at the results of judicial elections in Milwaukee. Liberal judicial candidates in nonpartisan contests perform significantly worse in the solidly Democratic city than candidates with the coveted ‘D’ next to their name.
In last year’s contentious Supreme Court race between incumbent conservative Justice David Prosser and liberal challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg, the liberal candidate received 67.8 percent of the vote. In comparison, President Obama received 79.3 percent of the vote this year.
There are two plausible explanations for the poor performance (relatively speaking) of liberal judicial candidates in Milwaukee.
First, turnout among the Democratic base — particularly low-income minority voters — is lower in nonpartisan spring elections, meaning that the spring electorate is whiter and wealthier, which benefits conservative candidates.
The second problem for liberals is that many base voters may arrive at the polls uninformed of which nonpartisan judicial candidate is favored by the Democratic Party.
While Democrats and liberal groups clearly get out the memo on judicial candidates to their educated, politically aware base in Madison -- where recent liberal Supreme Court candidates have performed on par with Democratic candidates -- they struggle to inform and turn out the less-educated and lower-income base in Milwaukee.
Rich Abelson, executive director of AFSCME Council 48 in Milwaukee, says the dynamics of spring elections present a challenge to progressives that groups like his must work hard to counteract.
“Not spending more time mobilizing the get-out-the-vote effort in Milwaukee hurt us dramatically,” he says, referring to last year’s Supreme Court race.
Walker, of course, understands this dynamic better than anybody. In 2004 and 2008, he easily won county-wide nonpartisan elections running as a conservative candidate for Milwaukee County executive. In 2010 and 2012, however, running with the poisonous ‘R’ next to his name as a candidate for governor, he received less than 40 percent of Milwaukee County’s vote.