Wisconsin Supreme Court primary turnout at highest level in decades

Last week’s Wisconsin Supreme Court primary featured the highest turnout in at least 20 years, with just under 704,000 voters participating. The next-highest primary turnout during this period was in 2016 when 566,000 voters participated in the primary.

Since 2000, there have been 15 other elections for state Supreme Court, six of which had primaries (a Wisconsin Supreme Court primary is only held if more than two candidates file; the top two finishers in the primary advance to the general election).

Higher primary turnout has typically been associated with higher general election turnout. The 2016 general election had the highest turnout of any during this time period, including the nine without primaries, at 1.95 million. The record-low 278,000-voter turnout in the 2003 primary was followed by the lowest turnout in any general election where a primary was held.

Turnout in a general election has exceeded 1 million three time: in 2011, 2016, and 2019. The conservative-backed candidate won in all three elections. The three lowest turnout figures for contested elections during this time were in the 2009, 2003, and 2015 elections, ranging between 794,000 and 813,000. The liberal candidate-backed won in 2009 and 2015, while the conservative-backed candidate won in 2003.

Incumbent Daniel Kelly and Jill Karofsky were the top-two finishers in the Feb. 18 primary this year and will advance to the April 7 general election. Kelly received 50.1% of the primary vote. Of the six other primaries since 2000, a candidate received more than 50% of the vote in three. In all three, that candidate went on to win the general election.

This year’s general election coincides with Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primaries. Eight notable Democrats are running in that party’s presidential primary as of Feb. 25. President Donald Trump will be the only candidate on the Republican presidential primary ballot.

The result of the state supreme court general election stands to impact future control of the court. A Kelly win would preserve the current 5-2 conservative majority. Assuming that no justices leave the bench early, this would prevent liberals from winning a majority on the court any earlier than 2026. A win for Karofsky would narrow the conservative majority to 4-3 and would mean that the 2023 election will decide control of the court.

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