Supreme Court election, contentious county race drive turnout in Milwaukee

Louis Weisberg, staff writer

Voter turnout for the Feb. 16 primary elections in Milwaukee was nearly double that of the last municipal primary in 2012. Hotly contested races for the state Supreme Court, Milwaukee County Executive, Milwaukee mayor and seven Milwaukee aldermanic districts helped spur participation.

Neil Albrecht, executive director of the city of Milwaukee Election Commission, said turnout this year was 21 percent, compared to 12 percent in 2012.

The turnout “really isn’t attributable to anything other than who’s on the ballot and how contentious the races are,” Albrecht said, noting the 2012 municipal primary had much lower-profile contests.

SUPREME COURT

At the top of the ballot was a three-way race for the state’s Supreme Court. The two highest vote getters will face off in a general election on April 5.

Winning one of the places on that ballot was Rebecca Bradley, a controversial Supreme Court justice who was appointed by Scott Walker months ago. She received 45 percent of the statewide vote.

Close behind, JoAnne Kloppenburg won the other spot on the April ballot. She took second place with 43 percent of the vote. In 2011, she came close to unseating right-wing Justice David Prosser.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald came in third. Conventional wisdom is that Donald’s voters will give their support to Kloppenburg in April, which suggests a tough race ahead for Bradley.

Adding to her difficulty, Bradley is closely tied to Walker, whose approval rating stands at just 38 percent. On the other hand, she has strong Republican support and can expect massive contributions from Koch-backed groups as well as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, another right-wing group.

LARSON VICTORY

Another big draw on the Feb. 16 ballot was a spirited race for Milwaukee County Executive between incumbent Chris Abele and challenger Chris Larson, a state senator. Larson eked out a slim but impressive 700-vote victory in the primary, which also included long-shot candidates Joseph T. Klein, a member of the Wisconsin Pirate Party, and carpenter Steve Hogan.

Abele and Larson are both political progressives. Nonetheless, Larson ran a negative campaign that attacked Abele as a power-hungry oligarch indifferent to the middle class and the poor. Larson’s supportive PAC tried to tie Abele to Scott Walker, depicting the two political opposites as flip sides of the same coin in one campaign mailer.

Abele ran a positive campaign touting his success in increasing county services while restoring fiscal balance to the county after inheriting a massive structural debt from his predecessor, Walker.

VOTER ID STILL MOSTLY UNTESTED

The first-time implementation of the state’s new voter ID law went relatively smoothly in this primary, but the law has yet to face its most challenging test.

Conservatives were quick to seize on higher turnout in Milwaukee and throughout much of the state yesterday as proof the new voter ID law failed to stifle participation, as liberal groups had predicted. But Albrecht said the real test of the law’s impact will come with the elections in April and especially in November, when there will be presidential, senatorial and other high-profile races on the ballot.

Although voting went smoothly for the most part, Albrecht said “there was a fair amount of confusion and frustration for voters.”

In addition to dealing with their first election using the voter ID law, poll workers had to implement other changes that state GOP leaders have made to the electoral process. Since taking office in 2011, Walker has enacted 33 laws that impact the electoral process in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Council.

“I don’t think lawmakers or the pubic necessarily recognize that election workers only perform their duties four times a year at the most and (the laws) have become so complex that it really is a struggle for the workers and for the voters,” Albrecht said.

He added that voters in February primaries are usually the most dedicated and experienced voters, so they tend to be more knowledgeable and aware of voter requirements.

“The February primary (draws) the frequent voters, the people who come out and vote in probably every election,” Albrecht explained. “The real test of how the ID law affects voters will be this April and November. You can’t gauge the effect of photo ID by a primary.”