Karofsky defeats Kelly: ‘People were putting a middle finger up to the Republicans in Madison’


April Lee – Advance-Titan — Oshkosh poll workers wore gloves and face masks to protect themselves against the coronavirus in last week’s election.

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

In a chaotic and controversial spring election, liberal judge Jill Karofsky defeated conservative incumbent Daniel Kelly by a 10.6% margin to claim a seat on the state Supreme Court bench.

Karofsky’s win narrows the conservative majority on the court from 5-2 to 4-3. Beyond her victory, former Vice President Joe Biden defeated Sen. Bernie Sanders in the democratic presidential primary race and hundreds of down-ballot positions were filled.

Locally, three seats on the Oshkosh Common Council were filled, along with two seats on the school board and one on the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors.

Lynnsey Erickson and Michael Ford were elected to the Common Council, collecting 22.3% and 21.3% of the vote respectively, while incumbent Matt Mugerauer was re-elected after collecting 17.7% of the vote.

Bill Miller, an incumbent on the council, did not win a seat after only collecting 17.2% of the vote.

In the school board race, incumbents Barbara Herzog and Bob Poeschl won seats, collecting 40.1% and 34.7% of the vote respectively. On the County Board, incumbent Julie A. Gordon kept her seat with 67.1% of the vote.

‘Politics as War’

This spring election wasn’t without its share of partisan politics. Early on, Gov. Tony Evers indicated that he wanted the election to go on as planned. But as health experts continued to recommend postponing, Evers changed his mind and asked the state legislature to intervene.

After the legislature refused to intervene, Evers issued an executive order to postpone the election. State GOP leaders sued and the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided the election would go on as planned.

UW Oshkosh communications professor Tony Palmeri writes a column for the Oshkosh Independent website titled “State of the State,” which examines politics in Wisconsin. In his column about the election fiasco, Palmeri described the partisan infighting as “Politics as War.”

In an interview, Palmeri said the public expects elected officials to solve problems and overcome their partisan differences, but in a Politics-as-War environment, elected officials become fixated on winning.

“Especially with the modern Republican party, they seem to have completely lost any concern with public interest and it is now about power and control,” Palmeri said.

In terms of the decision to hold the election, Palmeri says it’s “shameful” that amid public health officials warning to postpone, the GOP pressed on with the intent of decreasing turnout to help their Supreme Court candidate.

“I’ve been in Wisconsin for over 30 years; that was the most shameful political action I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I can’t imagine anything that even comes close to that.”

Palmeri said he believes Karofsky’s victory was the result of moderate voters taking out their frustrations with the GOP’s decision to hold an election amid a pandemic.

“I think the people were putting a middle finger up to the Republicans in Madison,” Palmeri said. “To me, the crooks in Madison, the people who don’t care about our health, it looks like they so deeply offended the independent voters that the independent voters greatly swung for Karofsky.”

Beside the election of a new state Supreme Court justice, Palmeri said Oshkosh elected “solution-oriented” individuals to the Common Council, regarding Erickson and Ford’s victories.

“That’s a good step, and when we talk about elections, local governments are nonpartisan,” he said. “So the politics as war is generally not as big of an issue at the local level, thankfully.”

But, if the number of confirmed cases in Wisconsin increase as a result of the election, Palmeri says nobody wins.

“There are a lot of people now, especially Democrats, who are saying ‘Karofsky won, so maybe it all turned out for the best;’ I don’t think we can say that,” Palmeri said. “I don’t think we can ever let people forget that this happened, that we had a group of officials, including the U.S. Supreme Court, that were willing to let people go out and potentially infect others or die just so one set of results might happen in an election.”

Logistics of a pandemic election

Throughout the partisan infighting at the state level, local clerks were preparing for an election because the only thing that would have stopped the election was a court order, according to Winnebago County Clerk Sue Ertmer.

Holding an election in the midst of a global pandemic required clerks to take extra precautions, she said.

The state National Guard pitched in to help keep everything sanitary, process absentee ballots, check voters in, help with voter registration and run ballots for people who voted curbside, Ertmer said.

Samantha Fassl, a UWO student and member of the National Guard, was at the Town of Neenah polling location. She said the guards went through training to help the clerks.

Personal protective equipment was provided for the guards, and they sanitized everything people would come into contact with as often as possible, Fassl said.

“This was a very eye-opening experience for me as someone who had never worked in a polling station before,” she said. “It made me appreciate all of the time and effort our local volunteers usually put in to make sure that we have the ability to vote.”

Aside from the added pressure on poll workers to keep everyone safe, some cities in Wisconsin had to decrease the number of polling locations because they lacked poll workers, which caused long lines in Milwaukee and Green Bay.

Ertmer said lines in Winnebago County were relatively short and that voters were mostly “in and out.” She added that the county also utilized drive-through voting for residents that didn’t want to leave their cars.

“We appreciated everyone’s patience going through this process because it was new for everybody,” Ertmer said. “None of us have ever encountered anything like this.”

Looking ahead

In the days following the election, Democrats in the state legislature introduced a bill that would move 2020 elections to a vote-by-mail system.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, and Rep Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska.

The bill is expected to be challenged by Republicans, who hold the majority in the state legislature.

On April 11, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Mail in ballots substantially increases the risk of crime and VOTER FRAUD!”

However, a report from the UCLA Voting Rights Project found only 31 incidents of voter impersonation in an investigation of over 1 billion votes cast.

In a written statement, UCLA Voting Rights Project co-founder Dr. Matt Barreto said mail-in  ballots are used every year by millions of voters and that suggestions of rampant voter fraud in mail ballots are baseless.

“Our comprehensive research finds there is no widespread fraud with vote-by-mail, and that voters can be confident that their ballots are safe and will count,” Barreto said. “Rather than scaring people with disinformation, we have an obligation to hold our elections in a safe, healthy and secure environment that allows all Americans to cast a ballot without undue barriers.”