The easy answer, of course, is that two entirely different sets of voters turn out for different elections.
Presidential elections draw the largest voter turnouts and, on top of that, Wisconsin routinely attracts percentages of eligible voters in presidential years that are among the highest in the nation.
November’s 70% voter turnout was far more representative of the state than the 19% of voters who turned out for last week’s statewide election for the Supreme Court and state superintendent.
We know that Wisconsin voters are best represented when we are a strongly progressive state, voting for Democratic presidential candidates over Republicans in every election for a quarter of a century.
But that doesn’t explain why the results in low-turnout elections are often the complete opposite of more representative elections. Why do candidates on the right seem to do better in lower turnout elections?
It’s a question Democratic organizers and anyone who cares about government had better figure out. Not only are Supreme Court races held during low-turnout spring elections, but gubernatorial elections are always in the off-year presidential midterms.
First, we should recognize state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers for bucking the pattern. Evers didn’t back away from standing up for sound educational policy and opposing expansion of school vouchers in the face of a challenge from the extreme right-wing Republican state Rep. Don Pridemore.
For reasons difficult to understand, it’s hard to get voters interested in the Supreme Court in the state or nation even though that office has the greatest impact on all our lives.
But most citizens are lucky if they can name a single Supreme Court justice. They’re overly deferential toward justices wearing robes in fancy courtrooms that look like a czar’s winter palace.
Well, the Republican majority on Wisconsin’s highest court certainly did its part to bring their actions down to a more mundane level.
When a male justice attempts to strangle a female justice and threatens to destroy the female Chief Justice because she’s “a total bitch,” lofty legal deliberations sound a lot like nickel beer night at the Bucket of Blood Saloon.
Marquette law professor Ed Fallone did his best to make the case for cleansing the dysfunctional court by removing Justice Pat Roggensack, who’s aligned herself with three other right-wing justices, all charged with violating state judicial ethics.
Roggensack’s majority even voted to change court rules so justices could participate in cases involving their own campaign contributors, including those who’ve paid for expensive commercials to get them elected.
Still, the small turnout last week favored continuing that unethical, judge-choking, name-calling, big-money-influenced court majority and returned Roggensack to the court.
If reformers for clean government can’t win an election against a candidate with that sorry history, how will they ever win a low-turnout election against a right-wing candidate? Easy, by voting.
Make Voting a Habit
In an odd way, the result illustrated how one of the biggest weaknesses of the Republican Party currently gives it an advantage in low-turnout elections.
The overwhelming success of Democrats last November proved that modern Republicans’ radical move to the extreme right was driving away women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, young people—just about everyone but older, white males.
That’s bad news for the GOP’s future. But the good news for Republicans temporarily is whites are much more likely to vote in low-turnout elections. Many vote in every election. It’s a habit.
State Democratic organizers and Obama for America did a masterful job in November turning out voters of color and young voters.
Unfortunately, those are the voters least likely to vote in any elections other than the presidential election. That’s changing. You can tell because, instead of simply ignoring those groups as non-voters, Republicans are now actively passing laws specifically intended to suppress voting by people of color and students.
But we need to speed up that change. In this election we didn’t see any activity approaching the well-organized effort of November to turn out progressive voters. Fallone was raising the right issues for anyone who cared about good government, but he must have felt pretty lonely out there at times.
The state Democratic Party understands the off-year election problem. It’s already begun setting up offices across the state to organize for the governor’s race in 2014.
But it sure would have been nice to see an emergency test run on Fallone’s behalf. After all, justice under Roggensack’s majority on the Supreme Court is in a state of emergency.
Every vote counts even more when turnout is low. The real Wisconsin majority that votes every four years has to stop forfeiting all the other elections.