MADISON -- Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky easily defeated conservative Justice Dan Kelly to win a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in results released Monday, April 13 from the chaotic spring election April 7.
The race was officially nonpartisan, but the high court has become heavily politicized in recent years. Liberal groups poured more than $2.4 million into the race for Karofsky, while conservatives spent more than $2.5 million for Kelly — who also drew President Donald Trump’s endorsement.
Karofsky’s victory narrows the court’s conservative majority to 4-3 and gives liberals a shot at seizing control when the next seat comes open in 2023.
Karofsky spent most of the campaign on the offensive, accusing Kelly repeatedly of being corrupt for consistently siding with conservative groups that come before the court. Kelly accused Karofsky of slandering him, and the court’s other conservatives questioned her ethics.
Wisconsin was the only state with an April election that didn’t postpone it to protect voters and poll workers from the coronavirus. Republican legislators and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers agreed for weeks that in-person voting must go on, but as concerns mounted about the virus Evers changed his mind and issued a last-minute order on April 6 postponing in-person voting to June. The state Supreme Court struck the order down within hours. Kelly recused himself from that decision because he was running.
The election went on as planned on April 7. But the shifting deadlines forced many voters to decide between sitting the election out or venturing to the polls to cast their ballots in-person and risk contracting the virus.
Municipal clerks across the started counting ballots from the April 7 election at 4 p.m. Monday, six days after the election, in an unprecedented timetable that resulted from the court fight over whether to hold the election. Karofsky tweeted a plea for donations to her campaign legal fund just hours before counting began, hinting at a possible recount or legal action by saying “we need to be ready to fight back against voter suppression and make sure votes are counted.”
Karofsky told reporters during a video conference Monday evening that “the people of Wisconsin rose up” to make their voices heard despite Republican attempts at voter suppression.
“People were willing to do that because they wanted their voices to be heard in this election,” she said. “A lot of times on election day we're wringing our hands because we're so upset about voter apathy. That wasn't the problem on Tuesday. ... We can never, ever, ever, in this state or country, have a repeat of the voter suppression tactics that we saw on Tuesday. That can never happen again.”
Kelly congratulated Karofsky in a statement and called it an honor to have served on the court.
Since conservatives have held a majority on the state Supreme Court, the Republican-dominated Legislature has been able to enact laws that enhanced the GOP’s position, including a voter ID requirement and limits on labor unions, despite legal challenges from Democrats. Redistricting — the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional and legislative districts that has huge implications for political power — is widely expected to be the next big fight before the court.
Conservative outside groups supporting Kelly spent more than $2.5 million, while liberal groups backing Karofsky spent more than $2.4 million, according to a tally by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
DNC Chair Tom Perez released the following statement:
“In the face of unprecedented voter suppression efforts by Republicans, Judge Karofsky has won the Supreme Court race -- a result that speaks to Democrats’ incredible enthusiasm advantage and should terrify Donald Trump and every other Wisconsin Republican. I know Judge Karofsky will be fair and make decisions based on the rule of law, not a hyper-partisan agenda. Wisconsinites will be well-served with her sound judgement.
“This victory comes despite Republicans’ best attempts to steal this election. In the middle of a public health emergency, when hardworking Americans are desperate for leadership, Republicans saw an opportunity to disenfranchise voters and advance their own toxic agenda. It’s unconscionable, and it’s why Democrats are working to ensure no voter should have to choose between risking their health and participating in an election.
“Republican attempts at voter suppression didn’t work in Wisconsin, and Democrats are fighting tooth and nail to ensure they don’t work in November when we will send Joe Biden to the White House and elect Democrats up and down the ticket.”