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How state and local judicial elections became so politicized

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Janet Protasiewicz won her race for Wisconsin Supreme Court justice this week.

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JANET PROTASIEWICZ: Tonight, we celebrate this historic victory that has obviously reignited hope in so many of us.

MARTÍNEZ: Over the last several years, liberals in Wisconsin have been stripped of some power in state government, even though they make up a larger share of the electorate than conservatives. For a race between two candidates without party affiliations, it was pretty partisan. Mike Wagner is with us to talk about why. He's a political scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Mike, a state Supreme Court election focused on partisan issues - how long has that been a thing?

MIKE WAGNER: It's been a thing for the last, probably, three state Supreme Court elections, but it was at its most acute point here in 2023. It's gotten increasingly partisan over time. The campaign finance donation networks have gotten more partisan over time. The advertising has gotten more partisan and sharper and more negative over time. And this is all happening in an environment where Wisconsin politics has become increasingly contentious, increasingly polarized and increasingly partisan.

MARTÍNEZ: Is there anyone to point to for this?

WAGNER: I think that this really took off and got its kind of jet fuel added to it during the early part of former Governor Scott Walker's term in office in Wisconsin. There was a bill that ended collective bargaining rights in the state for public workers. And that resulted, as you all might remember, in weeks and months of protests at the Capitol. The Democrats and the legislature actually left the state to try to get rid of the quorum. And that's really when politics got to the point where Republicans and Democrats haven't been able to do much in the way of compromise at the legislative level and really left the state Supreme Court to be the main vehicle for changes in how we interpret what's legal and what's not in the state of Wisconsin.

MARTÍNEZ: Is what's happening in Wisconsin similar to what's happening in other states that elect judges?

WAGNER: It is in some ways. Wisconsin - on the one hand, politics is more nationalized in the United States than it was in generations past. But on the other hand, Wisconsin is kind of a leading edge of that increase in polarization and that increase in acrimony. And so the partisan nature of what's happening, the intensity of that and the extremity, even in people in the electorate, is wider in Wisconsin across a wide variety of issues and a wide variety of attitudes toward different groups, that it is another, you know, political swing states that get a lot of attention, a lot of advertising and that sort of thing around election times.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, when I see my ballot here in California, I never see a D or an R next to a judge's name. So if judges who are supposed to be neutral campaign on their political views, how can they be trusted?

WAGNER: That's a good question. I think the traditional view is that judges shouldn't campaign with respect to what their views are. But, of course, judges have views. And so you could also make the argument that being able to understand what judges' views are might help make voters make a more intelligent choice than the judge who just says, trust me, I do everything by the book, but there's no way to monitor me once I'm in office, you know, under a nonpartisan voting situation.

MARTÍNEZ: Just about 30 seconds left. Wisconsin's always crucial in presidential elections. Does Protasiewicz's victory tell you about what Wisconsin voters might do in 2024?

WAGNER: Wisconsin voters have been increasingly supporting more left-leaning and Democratic candidates over the past couple of election cycles. But most statewide elections, this one excepted, are much closer than this. But the directions - the winds are at the backs of the Democrats in Wisconsin right now.

MARTÍNEZ: Mike Wagner is a political scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Mike, thanks.

WAGNER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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