COVID-19 and Our 2020 Elections Confirmed Once Again: Courts Matter

By Peter Burress

Late in the evening on April 6, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court overturned Governor Evers’ effort to postpone the April 7 election. That ruling was a critical one for Wisconsinites. It came at a time when we were just beginning to understand the dangers of COVID-19, and postponing would have given election administrators time to adequately prepare to safely run our election. It would have also given voters more time to request an absentee ballot. Instead, the Court ignored pleas from mayors and public health experts, and undermined the strength of our democracy in Wisconsin. This decision put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk — and demonstrated precisely how critical courts are to the functioning of our democracy.

After waiting in hours-long lines due to poll worker shortages, sheltering from hail, and masking up for protection from COVID-19, Wisconsin voters were not deterred and still turned out in record numbers. The April election was a decisive victory for Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky, who unseated Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly and slightly shifted the ideological composition of Wisconsin’s highest court. Still, April’s election exposed flaws in our democratic processes. Among many other issues, severe poll worker shortages contributed to long lines, stringent absentee ballot requirements led to many concerns related to returning absentee ballots, and more than 23,000 ballots were ultimately rejected. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Supreme Court further undermined the governor’s pandemic response by striking down his “Safer at Home” order.

Facing these challenges to our democracy and our public health, municipal clerks worked around-the-clock to make improvements ahead of the November presidential election. More early voting locations, creative ballot return options, and better processes for curing absentee ballots all aimed to ensure that Wisconsin voters wouldn’t need to choose between their health and their right to vote. Still, these decisions faced challenge after challenge in our courts — culminating in one particular last-ditch effort to overturn the results of our November general election. 

On December 14, President Trump’s campaign went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to try and disqualify up to 221,000 ballots in Dane and Milwaukee counties — two counties with a large population of Black and Brown voters. In a 4-3 ruling, the Court tossed out the lawsuit, effectively denying any opportunity for the Trump campaign to undo a decision made by more than 3.2 million Wisconsinites.

The decision’s razor-thin majority pointed to the significance of Justice Karofsky’s April 7 win. Had former Justice Daniel Kelly won on April 7, it is easy to imagine a different outcome — one where the Court sided with President Trump’s attorney and rejected the will of Wisconsin voters. But that’s not what happened. Thanks to hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters who showed up on April 7 to have their voices heard, a difference of one vote on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ultimately delivered democracy instead of dysfunction.

This year, Wisconsin will host a February primary election and an April general election. Alongside candidates for state superintendent of public instruction, the two elections will include decisions about who will hold seats on the state circuit court and court of appeals. These officials will have an immediate impact on people’s lives through decisions related to criminal charges, home foreclosures, child custody cases, civil lawsuits, and more. Like Justice Karofsky, they could also one day determine the future of Wisconsin’s democracy. For Wisconsinites, these elections provide us with an opportunity to demonstrate what we have long known to be true: Courts matter, and we must not take them for granted.

Peter Burress is the Wisconsin campaign manager at All Voting is Local, a collaborative campaign housed at The Leadership Conference Education Fund.