The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Plenty of Wisconsin voters are really into the Supreme Court primary race

From left, Wisconsin state Supreme Court candidates Jennifer Dorow, Daniel Kelly, Everett Mitchell and Janet Protasiewicz in Madison, Wis., on Jan. 9. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)
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MADISON, Wis. — Progressive judges Janet Protasiewicz and Everett Mitchell and conservatives Daniel Kelly and Jennifer Dorow are on the primary ballot in Wisconsin on Tuesday to fill an open seat on the state Supreme Court. The final outcome in April will determine whether progressives can capture a 4-3 majority and change the court’s direction. Many voters care deeply about the outcome.

At an office park in southwest Madison on Saturday morning, a fleet of Democratic volunteers and just a couple of party staffers worked with military precision to dispatch a steady stream of canvassers. The 8 a.m. shift was well underway; another batch would come in at noon — despite temperatures in the teens.

The organizer running the operation, Rebecca Wilson, came to Wisconsin from Pennsylvania for her gap year before college. A remarkably self-possessed 19-year-old, she teaches volunteers to use a canvassing app to record voter data, hands out packets with designated houses to visit and reviews the questions they should ask (e.g., Do you know about the race? Have you decided how to vote?). This is one of seven neighborhood team operations in Madison alone (200 operate around the state). Wilson has been at this for nearly a month, making 500 volunteer calls a week.

Wilson says redistricting is a top issue: “People tell us they feel like they’re losing their democracy.” A resident in the area for 39 years, volunteer J.T. Covelli echoes that observation. The GOP “seriously gerrymandered” the state, she says, to such an extent that, more than once, voters have told her, “No one sees or hears me.” She thinks gerrymandering has contributed to extremism and “friction” between the parties. Despite the weather — it’s “cold and slick out there” — Covelli says she’s determined to spend as much time with voters as needed to educate them about the election.

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Certainly, abortion is the most critical for many volunteers. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade last year hit younger voters “extremely hard,” Covelli says. The state’s 1849 near-total ban on abortion took effect after the decision, but it now faces legal challenges. With a 4-3 conservative majority on the state Supreme Court almost certain to uphold the ban (even though more than 60 percent of Wisconsinites say they support Roe), this is a critical moment for reproductive rights.

After the Dobbs decision, former state treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Godlewski set up a political action committee, Women Win Wisconsin, to elect pro-choice women. She spends time lately organizing rallies, drawing on the large progressive coalition of groups in Wisconsin and helping turn out the vote.

On a freezing Friday night in Madison, Godlewski and a group of female OB/GYNs met at a restaurant to talk about Dobbs, the chaos it inflicted on patients and doctors (and medical staff who deal with traumatized patients), their mutual effort to sustain a full range of medical care and their personal development as advocates.

Dobbs has wreaked havoc on their practices, the physicians say. Women as young as 20 now ask for tubal ligations (rather than run the risk of an unwanted pregnancy); and some pharmacists reject prescriptions for mifepristone (used to treat miscarriages) for fear it’s intended for an illegal abortion. One doctor recalls that a patient with a high-risk pregnancy pleaded to “put her first” if a life-threatening emergency arose. Heartache is a constant feature of their professional lives. They refuse to accept that physicians and lawyers, instead of women themselves (based on the best medical advice), get to make these decisions.

They’ve helped set up and staff a clinic just over the Illinois line to offer abortion services — for those with time and resources to travel — that are illegal in Wisconsin.

One of the OB/GYNs confesses, “This has been the worst year of my life.” Even if she does everything right, aggressive prosecutors might come after her, claiming a lifesaving abortion was unnecessary. No wonder the overturning of Roe v. Wade convinced these doctors just how critical advocacy is to their ability to care for patients.

The Dobbs decision impacts all physicians who treat pregnant patients, including primary-care doctors, who are the only providers in some rural areas. Even the notes taken by an emergency room doctor or radiologist about a pregnant patient might create a legal quagmire if a prosecutor decides to second-guess treatment.

As it did with some physicians, Dobbs convinced some politically active University of Wisconsin students to focus on reproductive rights. I heard from a second-year medical student who wants to practice obstetrics and gynecology that she’s incredulous that a Texas judge could soon ban mifepristone. “We want to be the best medical professionals we can be,” she says, and she did not want to see politicians dictate care.

Medical students who talk with prospective students asked the school administration what to say about Dobbs. The response: “You’ll learn all the medicine you’ll need,” an answer she finds paternalistic and meaningless. She might have to do her residency out of state to get adequately trained.

It’s not just medical students who might leave. One undergraduate woman who attends the University of Wisconsin at the Stevens Point campus says, “If I don’t feel valued as a human being in this state, why would I stay?” She’s in good company. The steady outflow of young people from Wisconsin may well accelerate if they feel their values are under assault.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is certainly worried. In his state of the budget speech last week, he declared that “each day women in this state are treated like second-class citizens because of a law enacted before they had the right to vote — one that strips them of their reproductive rights — that is bad for freedom, it’s bad for families, and it’s bad for recruiting new workers, too.” He added, “We cannot expect more people to move here if they have to give up basic freedoms when they do.”

Tuesday’s vote will give the first indication about whether Wisconsin is prepared to lose its best and brightest — sending the message that women don’t deserve respect — or if, as one student puts it, “There’s still hope for Wisconsin.”