9 Takeaways From the Wisconsin Spring Election

On Judge Jill Karofsky’s victory, Milwaukee’s defiant voters, more diversity in representation, the GOP backfire, the Democratic primary afterthought, disgraceful in-person voting, and more.

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

It was an of-the-times celebration for State Supreme Court Judge-elect Jill Karofsky — a campaign victory thank you video filmed in her front yard at a social distance from friends and family. Photo courtesy of the campaign.

The results from Wisconsin’s irresponsibly-held April 7 election are in. Let’s break it down.

1. The election was still a disgrace

A number of races on the spring election ballot wound up going the way I was hoping (thefour Recombobulation Area endorsements were winners), but it’s hard to feel truly excited about the results considering many of the ways they were cast. This was not a free and fair election,and the real danger to come from that tragic Tuesday would not have come from the reported results regardless of what happened. News of the coronavirus-related death of Revall Burke, a poll worker in Chicago, broke Monday afternoon, and it’s hard not to think of a similar fate that could befall a Wisconsinite who might have been forced to make the choice between ensuring their own safety and exercising their right to vote.  

This election still should not have happened in the way that it happened. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services will be tracking election day COVID-19 transmission, and as the department said in a press release, “DHS will not have a full picture of the impact for several weeks as it does take some time for people to develop symptoms.” 

We won’t know what kind of public health damage this did to Wisconsin for some time, but we know that this election did real damage to our democracy. Far too many voters were disenfranchised. Dwight Bowie, who marched for civil rights 50 years ago in Milwaukee and hasn’t missed a vote since, was denied his right to vote after his ballot didn’t arrive in time. There are many more stories like his. The results of this election do not change the fact that this is a real warning to the rest of the country on how not to conduct an election during a pandemic. We need to get better at this before Election Day in November. Much better. 

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2. Milwaukee’s defiant voters

Wisconsin Republicans, in their complete refusal to work with Gov. Evers to make any kind of accommodations to delay the election date or shift it to vote by mail, forced people to make impossible decisions on election day. 

But Milwaukee — the state’s epicenter for the coronavirus crisis, with 1,775 confirmed cases and 86 deaths in the County as of Monday night — responded. Most of that response came in the form of absentee voting, which is how more than 90 percent of the county’s ballots were cast. The Sunday before the election delivered an unforgettable scene with people waiting for more than two hours in their cars for drive-through voting, with almost no one leaving the line. But that also came at the city’s polling places on Tuesday, the number of which reduced to just five due to poll worker shortages.

Milwaukee brought a defiant energy to the polls that day. People waited for hours, wearing masks and gloves, demanding for their voices to be heard, their votes to be counted.

And as the rain fell in an early evening storm, Milwaukee voters kept their place in line, unwavering in their commitment to exercise their constitutional right. Something tells me they would’ve stood firm in a hurricane. There was no stopping them. 

The defiance Milwaukee demonstrated on that tragic election day was the stuff of legend. This is a resilient town, and one that will rise when challenged. It’s one thing to make the best of a bad situation, it’s quite another to roar back at those who tried to silence your voice. The people who tried to shut Milwaukee up failed, and the people of this city triumphed in the face of tremendous adversity. 

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3. Wisconsin Republicans’ shameful shenanigans were unsuccessful

The Republicans’ politics-over-everything approach to forcing in-person voting in this election in order to win themselves a State Supreme Court seat clearly backfired. Wisconsinites are smart. They can recognize a cheap stunt when they see one, like how Assembly Speaker Robin Vos turned himself into a national laughingstock with his PPE antics at the polls on Tuesday, and like how the GOP went to every length possible to ensure in-person voting, advice from health professionals be damned, if it meant better odds for a Daniel Kelly victory. 

People are going to remember this moment. It’s a defining decision for Robin Vos, Scott Fitzgerald, party chair Andrew Hitt, and the rest of the state’s Republican leadership. This is a loss on multiple levels for this craven crew. 

4. There’s more diversity in Milwaukee leadership

Milwaukee’s political representation is starting to look more and more like the diverse city and county that it represents.

With his narrow victory, David Crowley will become the first black County Executive elected to serve a full term in Milwaukee County. The 33-year-old soon-to-be-former state representative will hold the highest elected office for a person of color in the 1.6 million-person metropolitan area. In our interview earlier this year, Crowley noted the lack of representation among executives in both the public and private sector in Milwaukee, and his election begins to change that. The mayor’s office won’t be seeing similar change, after Tom Barrett defeated State Senator Lena Taylor by a wide margin, but Crowley's election marks real progress for Milwaukee. 

And while there were not a great many changes on the Milwaukee Common Council, there will be a seismic shift in representation for the 8th District. JoCasta Zamarripa, the first Latina and first out bisexual woman in the Wisconsin State Legislature, will take over for Bob Donovan after winning by a 92-vote margin. Donovan has long seemed like a politician plucked from a different era. In his anti-transit run for mayor four years ago, he didn’t even gain half of Tom Barrett’s vote total and almost lost his own seat in the process, signaling that perhaps his days of comically scorched earth press releases and over-dramatized police-heavy press conferences were behind him. And as he concludes his 20 years in office, it’s hard to think of a bigger change than going from Donovan to Zamarripa on the city’s near south side. 

Also heading for the exits is another failed anti-streetcar mayoral candidate, Tony Zielinski, who has held office in Milwaukee, on the Common Council and County Board, since 1988. Taking his seat will be Marina Dimitrijevic, the former County Board Chairwoman from Bay View. 

So, seats previously held by Bob Donovan and Tony Zielinski will soon be held by JoCasta Zamarripa and Marina Dimitrijevic. This is very good news for the city of Milwaukee.

Adding two more women to the Common Council to bring the total to five is also important. As recently as 2016, Ald. Milele Coggs was the only woman on the 15-person council. And after this election, nine of the 15 Milwaukee Common Council districts in this majority-minority city will be represented by people of color. That is progress. 

5. It’ll be 20 years for Mayor Tom Barrett

Tom Barrett is headed toward his fifth term as mayor, making him the longest-serving big city mayor in the country. At the end of this term, he’ll have held the office for 20 years. A real race for mayor never truly materialized. Lena Taylor’s challenge was certainly sidelined, to some degree, by the coronavirus crisis, but it’s hard to say if that challenge would have put real pressure on the mayor in the first place.

It was a decisive victory for Barrett, but this will actually be Barrett's smallest winning margin since the year he was first elected. Results by year:

Barrett: 63%
Taylor: 37%

Barrett: 70%
Donovan: 30%

Barrett: 70%
McDonald: 29%

Barrett: 79%
Shaw: 21%

Barrett: 53%
Pratt: 46%


6. Sanders staying in the race probably helped Jill Karofsky

The Democratic primary had essentially become non-competitive, and many wondered why Bernie Sanders was not dropping out and throwing his support behind the presumptive nominee, Joe Biden. Well, Sanders endorsed the former vice president on Monday, but staying in the race past Wisconsin’s election day and endorsing Jill Karofsky could very well have played a part in the final outcome. 

Driving Democratic voters to the polls (or, in this case, the absentee envelope) in this election was always the most likely path forward for a Karofsky victory. Once the Democratic primary became non-competitive and once last week’s Republican voter suppression shenanigans went to unfathomable extremes, it seemed (to me at least, perhaps not to many others) that Daniel Kelly was the favorite to remain on the bench. Sanders staying in isn’t the only reason contributing to Karofsky’s victory -- she ran the campaign and she deserves the lion’s share of the credit -- but Sanders’ staying in his race and making a tangible impact doing so was no small thing.

7. Does Karofsky’s victory provide a path for Biden to defeat Trump?

This map from Decision Desk contributor Niles Edward Francis is one to pin on the wall if you’re looking ahead to November.

Yes, spring elections are not always predictive of what might happen in the fall, and yes, this race is impacted by the Democratic primary being on the ballot (along with the many major races in places like Milwaukee). But if you’re looking ahead to the general election this fall, a map like this one could provide a path for Joe Biden to win the swingiest of swing states and make Donald Trump a one-term president. 

There’s also this: Republicans didn’t vote for Kelly this year by as large of margins as they voted for State Supreme Justice Brian Hagedorn last year. If Democrats can chip away at the Republican Party’s state stronghold in Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties, that could make a big difference in the fall.

The results from this election will be worth dissecting for months to come. If Biden can chip away at Trump’s margin in the WOW counties (which seems most realistic in Ozaukee County), drive up margins in Milwaukee County suburbs like Wauwatosa (which went overwhelmingly for Karofsky), and seriously compete in places like the Fox Valley, Green Bay, Kenosha, La Crosse and Eau Claire, Trump really could lose Wisconsin in November.

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8. The Democratic primary was an afterthought

For months here at The Recombobulation Area, we crunched the numbers about the Democratic primary. And by the time it arrived, it was not only fundamentally non-competitive, but it was a complete afterthought compared to the race for State Supreme Court. Joe Biden won big -- 63 percent to Sanders’ 32 percent -- and carried every county in a state that Sanders won 71 of 72 of in 2016. It doesn’t tell us much about what this state values in a candidate, nor does it say much about what any of this means for November. I’m wondering what exactly I should do with this knowledge of how Elizabeth Warren trended with voters in certain age brackets or how Pete Buttigieg fared in different parts of the the state, and I’m thinking the answer is: probably nothing.

9. We’re funding our schools

After a lost decade in school funding, it’s great to see local communities step up and vote to support public education. Milwaukee voted overwhelmingly for $87 million in funding for Milwaukee Public Schools. And in one of the closest races imaginable, Racine voters chose $1 billion in new funding over the next 30 years in an election that was decided by just five total votes.

Every vote does indeed matter. It did in this election and it will in the next election. Make sure you are registered, make a plan to vote, and bring a handful of people along with you. When more people vote, our democracy is better. 

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