The Most Important Election of 2023 Is Taking Place in Wisconsin
An interview with Judge Janet Protasiewicz on what's at stake in Wisconsin and men yelling at her
America insists on continuing on as normal, brightly, brilliantly, and forcefully forgetting how close we came to losing our democracy on January 6, 2021, when rioters stormed the Capitol and overwhelmed security guards, entering the Senate chambers and pooping in the halls.
But in Wisconsin, it’s harder to forget what happened. Because Wisconsin was one state where the lawsuits seeking to upend the 2020 election came close to actually doing so.
Notably, several lawsuits attempting to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin were rejected by a 4-3 margin, with Justice Brian Hagedorn joining the three liberal justices. In one such ruling, Hagedorn wrote:
"At stake, in some measure, is faith in our system of free and fair elections, a feature central to the enduring strength of our constitutional republic. It can be easy to blithely move on to the next case with a petition so obviously lacking, but this is sobering. The relief being sought by the petitioners is the most dramatic invocation of judicial power I have ever seen."
And that system is being put to a vote. Currently, in Wisconsin, Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz is running for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court against Daniel Kelly. Conservatives currently have a 4-3 majority on the court; since retiring Chief Justice Patience Roggensack is a member of that majority, this race could flip the balance of power.
According to former Wisconsin GOP chairman Andrew Hitt, Kelly “had pretty extensive conversations” with fake electors looking to overturn the election in Wisconsin and was brought in to give advice on election matters. Kelly has downplayed the allegations, stating he was simply working as a lawyer and consultant. You would think that trying to overthrow an election is something you’d want to be very clear about.
If you don’t live here, it’s easy to ignore the politicking of Middle America; to dismiss red states as getting what they deserve. But doing so ignores the way parts of Middle America and elsewhere have been gerrymandered into democracy deserts. In 2020, an analysis by the Electoral Integrity Project at Harvard University rated Wisconsin’s electoral maps the worst in the nation. Wisconsin political columnist Dan Shafer wrote in his newsletter Recombobulation Area on March 22,
“The political ramifications of these gerrymandered maps in Wisconsin have been astounding. Although the state has now had a Democratic governor for more than four years, Republicans are still holding all the cards in state government. Conservative control of the legislative and judicial branches has meant Wisconsin politics have been stuck in what Ben Wikler, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, characterized as an “undemocratic doom loop.”
Wisconsin is a state where democracy is teetering right on the edge; April 4 could decide which way it falls.
I spoke with Protasiewicz about the stakes of the Supreme Court election, why men are yelling at her, and how she’s fighting for Democracy in Middle America.
Janet: Hello, Lyz. This is Judge Janet in Milwaukee calling you about the men who yell at me.
Lyz: There are so many men yelling at you.
Janet: Men are seeming to enjoy yelling at me.
Lyz: You know you're doing the right thing though when men yell at you, is what I've learned.
Janet: So have you seen any part of our debate?
Lyz: I did. I did catch glimpses of the debate because I'm in Iowa and I love Wisconsin. So, yes, I was able to follow along on Twitter with some of the debate. And I thought some of your comments, especially on recusing yourself from court cases involving Democrats, were well-answered.
Janet: Well, thank you very much. And I'll just tell you that that debate was ... I anticipated that that debate would be as it was given the fact that I went to Dan Kelly's previous debate when he debated Jill Karofsky. In 2020, I went to the debate for both the primary and the general election, and I remember seeing that same kind of anger and that same personality. And I remember sitting in my seat saying, oh, I'm so glad that's not me. And fast-forward a few years, and I guess it was me in that interview, but I remember because it's physically uncomfortable watching it.
Lyz: This is a question I hadn't anticipated asking you, but since you're bringing it up … and I've written about this and I've experienced it. I mean, I remember my first month at the local paper here in Cedar Rapids, well, I ran out to cover a GOP protest, and I had just shown up. I hadn't even said anything. And I said to one of the protesters, "Who should I talk to?" And he said, "That guy Jeff over there." And I walked over and said, "Hey, Jeff." And he immediately started screaming at me, "You're not a real journalist. You're fake." And he was so close, he was spitting in my face.
It was an out-of-body experience … And later I learned that it was the head of the Iowa GOP, Jeff Kaufmann. And I guess so many women, when they get into jobs like this that are high profile, they become a lightning rod for just the unabashed anger of men in America. How are you handling that? How are you finding a way to deal with that?
Janet: Well, I'll tell you, as I said, I was expecting it. I had been at those debates, and I rewatched those debates, and I knew that that's what [Kelly’s] personality is. And my team had well-prepared me, and they said, "He hasn't changed, Janet, over the past few years. He hasn't changed. He's going to be as bad as he was." And so I knew I was not going to engage. I knew that that's what he was going to do. And from where I was standing, I could see him in my peripheral vision, but I wasn't going to look at him. I wasn't going to engage him in it. And that was, to me, the best way to deal with him, because I wasn't going to be dragged down into the gutter with him, which is what I thought he was doing.
So I'll tell you, if I had not seen those debates, if I had not been prepared for that, I think it would've been incredibly challenging. But I had a pretty good sense of what I was going to be dealing with. And I've dealt with that personality before. I've been a judge for a long time. I've dealt with some really very challenging defendants, and he gave me a flashback to some of my courtrooms, quite frankly.
Lyz: Well, because it becomes personal for the people who experience it, but it's also a national thing. There is a national anger and a national nastiness, which is what you're running against. And so I think something that's really been interesting to watch in your campaign is how much of the national moment is being embodied in Wisconsin in this particular race. And I'd love to hear you talk about why people need to care about this.
Janet: So I hate to be this blunt about this. This, to me, is almost the fight of good versus evil, bottom line. And I hate to be that blunt about it because it sounds dramatic, but it is. The only reason I got into this race, and obviously we kind of knew what was going to happen with the Dobbs decision based on the weeks and based on the makeup for the United States Supreme Court. But the reason I got into the race — I got into the race before the Dobbs decision was released was because our democracy is on the line here in the state of Wisconsin, our utter democracy is on the line.
And I don't know how much you know about my opponent, but he was one of the people who was advising the Republican party about the fake elector scheme. He was on tour with Michael Gableman trying to promote the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen. And I have no doubt in my mind that the results of the 2024 presidential election, if they come into our Wisconsin Supreme Court chamber, if Dan Kelly is elected, he will do whatever it takes to ensure whoever the Republican nominee is, that they get Wisconsin's coveted 10 electoral votes.
Lyz: And that brings up the issue of gerrymandering, which is such a huge issue, not just for Wisconsin, but other Midwestern states like Ohio. It's just been stunning to read about the gerrymandering of Wisconsin and realize how much of that is about the courts and how this is not a representative democracy.
Janet: One hundred percent. So that debate, we had to give such limited responses. So I'll take you back to 2011, when our state started to get extraordinarily gerrymandered. We go back to 2011. And in 2011, Dan Kelly was advising the Republican Party about what was then called Act 43, which started the extreme gerrymandering. And as we move forward, 10 years later, our maps become even more gerrymandered. … People care so much about these issues, and people want fair maps, and people are kind of pragmatic. I'll talk to people and they say, "Okay, the maps are a little bit off. We can live with it. That's how it fits politics. That's the party in power." But nobody except those … right-wing extremists can sanction the maps the way they are now. You can't convince anybody that those maps are fair.
Lyz: Right. No, they're not. And I think something that is also fascinating about Wisconsin is they're not fair. And so many elections have been really close,. So much of our democracy rests on the courts. And I mean, when you look to 2024, do you think that that's only going to get worse? I'd love to hear your predictions.
Janet: So here's what I think. I think it depends who the people of this state elect, quite frankly. And if I am elected, we're going to … have four people who are actually going to follow the law and uphold the constitution. We will have a tremendous opportunity for things to get better. And in our last election, four to three, we almost toppled the results of our presidential election here. It was only that Brian Hagedorn switched and voted to not toss those election results. …. Everything hinges on this election.
Lyz: I want to be so respectful of your time, but I did want to ask you a final question. Is there something that you think that you've had a hard time communicating just because people aren't asking it or are not paying attention to this race that you really, really want people to know?
Janet: No, I think that people have been incredibly tuned in to this race and incredibly cognizant of what the issues are. So I think the one last thought I would like to leave you with is — it's not just all those issues that we've talked about, the gerrymandering, women's right to choose. Obviously, we'll have environmental issues here, the presidential election, marriage equality, and potentially all these issues. It's not just all of those issues. It's the overarching theme that we need courts that are fair and impartial, and that everybody's got a fair shake. That's the overarching theme — that we need to get away from all this extremism and get back to being fair.
Anya van Wagtendonk, reporting for Wisconsin Public Radio, has this incisive look at how the winner of this race could decide whether abortion remains legal in the state.
Dan Shafer’sis a great newsletter for Wisconsin politics, and has this very comprehensive explainer on the gerrymandering in the