In November, Milwaukee County voters could see an advisory referendum on the state’s 173-year-old abortion ban
It all comes down to a close vote during a board meeting this Thursday. Guest story by Phil Rocco.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
This story is by Phil Rocco, associate professor of political science at Marquette University.
For Wisconsinites, abortion access is on the ballot this fall.
For residents of Milwaukee County, that sentence may be true literally as well as figuratively.
It all depends on what happens this Thursday, July 28, when members of Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to place an advisory referendum on the ballot which will measure public opinion on whether Wisconsin Statute 940.04—the 1849 law which bans abortion at any stage of pregnancy without exception—should be repealed.
The vote on putting the referendum on the ballot, which has recently attracted the ire of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch, is expected to be a close one. Yet oddly enough, the greatest threat to the resolution––which is being proposed alongside one on military-style weapons and another on marijuana legalization––comes not from the minority of conservative board members such as Steve Taylor (District 17), Patti Logsdon (District 9), and Deanna Alexander (District 18). Instead, it comes from county supervisors from affluent suburbs like Wauwatosa (the 6th District’s Shawn Rolland) and Shorewood (District 1’s Liz Sumner) who support the repeal of Wisconsin’s 173-year-old abortion ban yet have voted against the resolution.
The resolution has thus far been recommended for adoption by both the County’s Finance Committee (on a 4-3 vote, with Shawn Rolland, Liz Sumner, and Steve Taylor voting against) and Judiciary Committee (on a 3-2 vote, with Patti Logsdon and Deanna Alexander voting against). It now heads for a County Board vote this Thursday, where it will need a two-thirds majority for passage. A source tells The Recombobulation Area that of the 18 County Supervisors, there are presently 10 votes in favor of the measure, meaning at least two additional votes will be required to pass it.
The I-support-the-right-to-choose-but group, whose votes are crucial for passage, makes two main arguments against the resolution. First, there is Supervisor Shawn Rolland’s claim, made during last week’s Finance Committee meeting, that Republican state legislators would, upon receiving news of these resolutions, “crumple [them] up into a ball…and throw [the resolutions] in the garbage.” Second, there is the argument that the referendum has no “return on investment,” as Rolland put it during the same meeting, suggesting that the money spent in adding the referendum to the ballot would be better spent elsewhere.
Both arguments misunderstand the value of formal processes of dissent.
The first argument––that state legislators will "crumple up the results"––presumes that there is no value to inviting democratic expression in the public square. Yet a look at the history shows that American democracy emerged (belatedly) only through mass protest and dissent, including dissent channeled through formal processes of petition and referenda. As Harvard political scientist Daniel Carpenter shows in his 2021 book, Democracy by Petition, formal statements of grievance have offered generations of Americans the chance to make their voices heard and to reshape the landscape of political possibility. An abundant scholarly literature also shows the value of inviting voters into the political process through initiatives and referenda, which generate civic participation and interest in significant political issues.
This argument also incorrectly presumes that there is nothing Milwaukee County can do to protect the right to choose. This, too, is not true. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm joined more than 80 other prosecutors in committing to not criminalize abortion. A County referendum will help to give valuable democratic legitimacy to this decision.
Sadly, Wisconsin voters have no other opportunity to formally voice their rejection of Wisconsin’s 173-year-old abortion ban at the ballot box. That’s because Wisconsin, unlike many of its peers and despite its legacy of progressive reforms, does not provide for direct, voter-initiated legislation (in 2022, at least five states will see such ballot measures addressing abortion). What Wisconsin voters can do, however, is register their discontent through an advisory referendum. As the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau points out, recent years have seen dozens of countywide referenda across the state on topics ranging from marijuana legalization to gerrymandering to corporate tax avoidance.
The second argument––that the advisory referendum has no return on investment––is a perfect example of how the veneer of economics-speak undermines policy debate (nicely documented in Beth Popp Berman 2022 book Thinking Like an Economist).
For a very low cost to the County budget – less than a nickel per resident – the referendum provides a meaningful barometer of public opinion on this ancient and brutal statute. If one extended the opportunity costs argument to its (absurd) logical conclusion, one could also argue that we shouldn't finance voter assistance in local elections because it imposes "opportunity costs" and turnout in local elections is low anyway.
The stakes of this resolution are higher than some of the fence-sitters on the County Board apparently realize. Democracies do not fall apart quickly. It takes a long time. And it happens in part because mass publics and elected officials that find themselves in the "opposition" give up hope and stop exercising the power they have to catalyze change. By inviting voters into the democratic process through advisory referenda. Milwaukee County has the opportunity to serve as a beacon of hope in a state that, sadly, appears on the verge of abandoning basic democratic values.
Moments like this reveal whose side our elected officials are really on.
Phil Rocco is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. He is the author of Obamacare Wars: Federalism, State Politics and the Affordable Care Act (University Press of Kansas, 2016) and editor of American Political Development and the Trump Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.