By SCOTT BAUER and TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A liberal challenger on Monday ousted a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice endorsed by President Donald Trump, overcoming a successful push by Republicans to forge ahead with last week’s election even as numerous other states postponed theirs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Joe Biden also emerged victorious, as expected, in the state’s Democratic presidential primary. The absentee-ballot-fueled victory by liberal Supreme Court candidate Jill Karofsky was a huge win for Democrats. It reduced conservative control of the court to 4-3 and overcame obstacles to voting in large liberal, urban cities.
Justice Dan Kelly was an early underdog in the Supreme Court race, given the expected higher Democratic turnout since the election was on the same day as the presidential primary. But as that race became less competitive in March and the coronavirus pandemic led to fears of in-person voting and closure of polling locations, the outcome became far more uncertain.
With so much riding on turnout, the Republican push to proceed with the election was viewed by Democrats as a way for them to suppress Democratic votes, particularly in Milwaukee.
Trump last week broke from health experts and called on his supporters to “get out and vote NOW” for Kelly. He later said Democrats were playing politics by trying to postpone the election.
“As soon as I endorsed him, the Wisconsin Democrats said, ‘Oh, let’s move the election two months later,’” Trump said. “Now they talk about, ‘Oh, safety, safety.’”
Trump first voiced support for Kelly at a rally in January, far before concerns over the coronavirus led to calls for a delay in the election.
The highly politicized Wisconsin Supreme Court backed Republicans in proceeding with in-person voting in a ruling issued the day before the April 7 election. Kelly didn’t participate, but he did voice support for holding the election.
Despite long lines at polling places in Milwaukee, which shrunk the number of places to vote from 180 to just five, Karofsky surged to victory behind a record-high number of absentee ballots — nearly as many as all the votes cast in a state Supreme Court race last year.
The Wisconsin election crystallized what’s expected to be a high-stakes, state-by-state legal fight over how citizens can safely cast their ballots if the coronavirus outbreak persists into the November election. Democrats are arguing for states to be ready to shift to much greater use of absentee and mailed ballots, while Republicans are raising the specter that such elections could lead to increased fraud.
Karofksy’s win is likely to only add fuel to Democrats’ call for more mail-in elections and toughen GOP opposition. Democrats earlier Monday called for moving a May 12 special congressional election in Wisconsin to mail-in only.
Thousands of voters congregated for hours in long lines on April 7, defying social-distancing guidelines that led to the postponement of primaries in several other states. The U.S. Supreme Court decided on the eve of the election that absentee ballots, requested in record numbers, had to be postmarked by midnight April 7. That overturned a judge’s ruling that had granted a one-week extension, forcing many residents to weigh safety concerns against exercising their right to vote.
Biden’s easy victory became academic after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out, one day after Wisconsin held in-person voting. Earlier in the Democratic primary season, Wisconsin was seen as a potential battleground state especially given Sanders’ commanding victory there in 2016. But in the weeks before the election, Biden emerged as the front-runner as other challengers dropped out. Neither Biden nor Sanders campaigned in the state leading up to the vote due to the pandemic.
Returns weren’t allowed to be reported until Monday due to a quirk in the court battle over the election. Even before the counting began, a group of Milwaukee-area voters filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force a partial revote to protect the “thousands” of voters who they argue were disenfranchised by the turbulent election. Other lawsuits seemed certain to follow.
Many voters complained that they had requested absentee ballots that never arrived, forcing them to choose between sitting out the election or risking infection by voting in person. City officials in Milwaukee, as well as Wisconsin’s two U.S. senators, called on the U.S. Postal Service to investigate the complaints.
Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said on Monday that the election was “a mess that could have been avoided.”