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Ari Berman on the Race That Could Decide the Fate of Democracy in Wisconsin — and the 2024 Election

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A crucial election in Wisconsin on Tuesday will decide the fate of democracy in the state and have major ramifications for the 2024 presidential election, says reporter Ari Berman, national voting rights correspondent for Mother Jones. At stake is a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which currently has a 4-3 conservative majority. Although technically nonpartisan, the election is a showdown between Democratic-backed Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz and Republican-backed former state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly. Berman says the outcome of the race could determine if abortion remains illegal in Wisconsin, as well as the future of voting laws and redistricting. “Every time the state Supreme Court under conservative control has been asked whether or not they want to expand democracy or constrict democracy, they have fallen on the side of constricting democracy,” says Berman.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York. Juan González is in Chicago.

“This Race Could Decide the Fate of Democracy in Wisconsin—and the 2024 Election.” That’s the headline of Mother Jones reporter Ari Berman’s story about today’s election in the battleground state that could determine if abortion remains illegal there, as well as the future of voting laws and redistricting.

The technically nonpartisan race is for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court that could flip the court’s 4-3 conservative majority. Democrat-backed Janet Protasiewicz is a liberal Milwaukee County judge who’s facing Republican-backed Daniel Kelly, a conservative former state Supreme Court justice.

Today is also a special election to fill an open seat in Wisconsin’s state Senate that could give Republicans a supermajority and the ability to impeach the state’s Democratic governor and override gubernatorial vetoes.

For more, we’re joined by Ari Berman, national voting rights correspondent for Mother Jones.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Ari. Maybe you can correct some of the pronunciations of the candidates in Wisconsin. But talk about this race that you say could not only determine democracy in Wisconsin, but in the 2024 presidential election.

ARI BERMAN: Well, first off, Amy, thank you for having me. And it’s Janet Protasiewicz. She actually ran an ad telling people how to pronounce her name. So that’s only reason I know how to pronounce her name in the first place.

This is an incredibly important race in Wisconsin, probably the most important race of the 2023 election cycle, because the Wisconsin Supreme Court race is likely to decide the future of really important issues, like gerrymandering, voting rights, abortion rights, and possibly even the 2024 election in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been the final word on the most important matters in the state. Conservatives have had a majority on that court since 2008. That has played a key role in the Wisconsin Republicans’ effort to undermine democracy. If Janet Protasiewicz wins the election tonight, that will mean that progressives will have a majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court for the first time in two decades, and it will give them a chance to restore democracy in Wisconsin. So, that’s why the race is so important.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ari, could you talk about the money that’s being poured into the race, and the ideological groups that have spent more than $30 million on it?

ARI BERMAN: An incredible amount of money has poured into the race, Juan. The race has tripled the spending record for any state Supreme Court election, let alone in Wisconsin. Protasiewicz’s campaign has outspent the conservative Judge Dan Kelly’s campaign, but outside conservative dark money groups have outspent liberal groups.

And the interesting thing is the conservative candidate, Dan Kelly, has received money from some of the very groups and people that have funded the insurrection. One of his main donors is a guy by the name of Richard Uihlein, an Illinois-based shipping magnate, who was the largest funder of the “Save America” rally that preceded the insurrection on January 6th. He was the largest donor to the GOP in 2022, and 80% of his money went to Republicans who denied or questioned the 2022 results. So —

AMY GOODMAN: It looks like he’s freezing. We’re going to switch over to audio to be able to hear Ari Berman, who is the national voting rights correspondent for Mother Jones, who has written the report, “This Race Could Decide the Fate of Democracy in Wisconsin—and the 2024 Election.” Let’s see if we can hear him right now. Ari, can you hear us?

ARI BERMAN: Yes, Amy. Can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: Perfect, perfect. This issue of abortion being a determinant of outcome, what the polls show about the issue getting people out to vote?

ARI BERMAN: It’s a huge issue in Wisconsin, because right now, currently in effect, Wisconsin has an abortion ban from 1849 that went into effect immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. That law from 1849 was passed one year after Wisconsin became a state, by an all-male Legislature. It’s incredibly unpopular. Eighty percent of Wisconsinites oppose the abortion ban. But the heavily gerrymandered Legislature refuses to change it.

And so, that’s a huge issue in this race, because Democrats and the administration of Governor Tony Evers are currently challenging the abortion ban in state court, and it’s likely to come before the state Supreme Court. And Judge Protasiewicz has said that she supports a woman’s right to choose. So it’s very possible there are enough votes on the court, if she wins, to strike down the 1849 abortion ban in Wisconsin and restore reproductive rights in the state.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ari, could you talk about how the Wisconsin Supreme Court has been vital in GOP efforts at voter suppression and gerrymandering and also in terms of dismantling campaign finance laws?

ARI BERMAN: Well, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, has really been a driver of efforts to undermine democracy in Wisconsin. They have upheld basically every law passed by the Legislature to entrench their own power. That includes some of the most gerrymandered maps in the country. That includes a series of laws making it harder to vote, such as a strict voter ID law, outlawing drop boxes, things of that nature. Wisconsin dismantled, basically — the Republicans dismantled, basically, some of the best campaign finance laws in the country. That’s why there’s been so much spending on the state Supreme Court election. That was also upheld by the state Supreme Court.

So, really, every time the state Supreme Court, under conservative control, has been asked whether or not they want to expand democracy or constrict democracy, they have fallen on the side of constricting democracy. And that’s why the state Supreme Court election is potentially so significant, because it really is the only way to restore checks and balances in Wisconsin. Wisconsin already has a Democratic governor and a Democratic attorney general, but they have very little power because of the gerrymandered Legislature’s grip on the state. And the only way to get rid or to try to weaken the gerrymandered Legislature’s grip on the state is for those gerrymandered maps to be challenged and for there to be a branch of government that can actually challenge the Legislature, because right now all the governor can do is veto the Legislature’s laws. But if the Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds those laws, then it’s very difficult for there to be meaningful democracy in the state of Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Ari Berman, there’s also a state Senate seat open.

ARI BERMAN: There is, yeah. And that’s very important because that’s going to determine whether Senate Republicans have a two-thirds supermajority. If they get a two-thirds supermajority, they can then impeach state officials. And they’ve already talked about impeaching Judge Protasiewicz, potentially, if she wins the election today, which would be a really incredible power seizure. People are basically saying that would be a coup against democracy, if progressives were to get a majority on the state Supreme Court and then Republicans, because of their gerrymandered supermajority, would then try to impeach the judge that created that progressive majority. That would probably create some kind of constitutional crisis in the state of Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, we want to thank you for being with us, national voting rights correspondent for Mother Jones. Again, we’ll link to your report, “This Race Could Decide the Fate of Democracy in Wisconsin—and the 2024 Election.”

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