Judge Janet Protasiewicz speaks to supporters after her victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election, April 4, 2023, in Milwaukee (Angela Major/WPR)

At a time when the US system and the American notion of democracy is under strain — and arguably at breaking point — every election takes on an added sense of importance.

But one of the most significant may have come from an unexpected quarter on Tuesday. As Donald Trump was being arraigned in a Manhattan courtroom, voters 900 miles away was choosing a justice for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Democratic-backed candidate Janet Protasiewicz defeated the conservative, Republican-supported Dan Kelly. She did so handily, winning by a larger-than-expected 55% of the vote.

The win of Protasiewicz, a circuit court judge in Milwaukee County, shifts the ideological balance on the Supreme Court to a liberal majority after many years of conservative dominance.

Swinging to the Center?

Wisconsin’s significance is almost always captured in the shorthand of “Swing State”, particularly after the last two Presidential elections. However, the importance of Protasiewicz’s victory and the future of the Court should be focus on issues with national resonanace, such as abortion rights, voting rights, and gerrymandering.

This importance is often obscured by a focus on the US as a nation. But in the federal system, decisions at state level can define political trends, particularly if one state’s verdict set off a chain reaction across others.

When Roe v. Wade was overturned last year by the US Supreme Court, an abortion ban in Wisconsin — first enacted in 1849 —immediately took effect.

Protasiewicz, breaking an informal prohibition on expressing political views during a judical campaign, made clear her support for rights. She also intervened over the Republican-dominated legislature’s use of gerrymandered maps as “rigged” and “unfair”.

The judge summarized, “Our state is taking a step forward to a better and brighter future when our rights and freedoms will be protected.” And her win could be a marker of the pushback against the national movement, between Trumpist and Republican politicians and a conservative US Supreme Court, restricting rights — women’s, social, and electoral.

A day later, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday signed a repeal of the state’s 1931 abortion ban, rescinded by the Democratic-majority state legislature in March. Having won re-election in November on the promise of protecting abortion rights, she said, “This is long overdue.”

These pushbacks — even Kansas and deep red Kentucky protected some abortion rights after referenda last summer and autumn — check the narrative of an America hurtling towards restriction of rights. Yet caution is needed: even the successes point to instability in US politics. If the majority in votes on referenda or officials swung the other way, then the threat is renewed.

That threat is reinforced by the gerrymandering and voter suppression pursued in states such as Wisconsin. And it is magnified by calls to erode the system through ballots within it. Professor Jeremi Suri of the University of Texas notes, “There is an
organized group of insurrectionists who are trying to actively fund candidates for elected office, including judgeships.”

The importance of Wisconsin’s election may be as a triumph of diminishing returns. Polarization could still be the defining theme, with “swing states” disappearing as Blue and Red states go in different directions.

On Thursday, Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature expelled two Black representatives.

Their offense? They, along with a white colleague, had led a protest for gun control inside the chamber — only days after three children and three adults were killed in a mass shooting at a Nashville school.

one of the two legislators, Justin Jones, said:

What the nation is seeing is that we don’t have democracy in Tennessee — and that if we don’t act we have some very dark days ahead. And so we have to respond to this with mass movements, nonviolent movements.

To expel voices of opposition and dissent is a signal of authoritarianism.

Protasiewicz said after her victory, “It means our democracy will always prevail.”

The judge — and Wisconsin’s voters — had spoken. But elsewhere the jury is still out.