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Home / David Ziemer / Too high, too low, or just right?

Too high, too low, or just right?

State Representative Gary Sherman wants to amend the constitution, to do away with spring elections.

Noting that voter turnout in November was 90%, but the spring election was only 19%, Sherman thinks its an embarrassment and undemocratic for only 19% of voters to select an office as important as Supreme Court Justice.

I don’t see that as too low at all. Maybe it’s too high, even.

The way I see it, if 81% percent of voters don’t care who gets elected to the Supreme Court and lack any information relevant to casting an informed vote, I don’t want them voting. Democracy would not be furthered by tripling the voter turnout, if the extra voters don’t care who wins, don’t know what the issues are, and are voting on nothing more than name recognition or a coin flip.

Of course, I’m an attorney and thus a member of the special interest group that tends to dominate judicial elections. So, I suppose I’m biased against holding judicial elections in fall, when the polls would be flooded with voters who may have very firm opinions as to who should be president or governor, but none when it comes to judges.

On the other hand, elections for state school superintendent and school boards are also held in spring, and those elections tend to be dominated by special interest groups, too. Or rather, one special interest group – the teachers union. Not being part of that special interest group, I’d love to see those elections moved to the fall.

So, maybe I’m just a hypocrite. Or maybe we attorneys should reach a back-room deal with the teachers to oppose any changes to our way of life.


  1. Wisconsin voter turnout in the 2008 national election was 71%, not 90%. In fact, the 71% is a decline from the 74% who voted in the 2004. At least that is what the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Badger Herald have reported.

    I agree with Rep. Sherman that a 20% turnout is too low, but moving the election to November would just politicize the judicial campaigns even more. I would rather “fix” the spring election than eliminate it. Why is it such a failure? What can be done
    to get more people out to vote? here are some ideas.

    1. Not enough races with consequence. Often there are only one, two or three races on the ballot. We have too many elections of little consequence. Between the fall and spring primaries and elections we have four voting days in less than eight months. That’s too many when the spring elections mean so little compared to presidential election years.

    2. The primary for the spring election is boring. We should have citizens referendums like they do in other states, because Wisconsin politicians are too often tone-deaf to their constituents needs. Right now, the public is demanding cuts in government and no new taxes and yet the taxers are out in full force. We should have the right to override our politicians views through referendums.

    3. Move the election to Saturday. Most people are not going to take off work just to go vote for a school board election or a judicial race, They go in November because that really matters.

    So rather than get rid of this election, we should work to make it better and more meaningful.

  2. sorry. in an earlier version of the story, it said it was 90%. they must have realized the error and edited it out.

  3. Thanks Dave, I wish our turnouts were 90%. If we had fewer elections and held them on a Saturday or holiday – say the 4th of July – then we would have higher totals. I was the 80th voter at 4:30 p.m. in my ward last week. Last November I was at 475 at 2:30 p.m.

    I think we both agree the Spring election needs to be fixed. I say lets add more meaningful choices for the voters. I wish Wisconsin had public referendums and would hold the Spring election on a Saturday. I’ve been voting in the Milwaukee spring elections for over 20 years now and it’s a real drag to head to the polls knowing there will be almost thing to vote for.

    A judicial race is worth going to vote for, but for the average voter, a ballot of three races, typically two judicial and one for the school board, is simply not enough to get anyone excited to learn the candidates positions and go and vote.

  4. Having grown up in Minnesota and having a father who has been an election official for over 40 years in our small township, he is flabbergasted that we have spring elections because of the cost. In Minnesota, as in most other state, the fall elections include votes for the Supreme Court, city and county officials and school board members. If it works in Minnesota, I can’t believe it would not work here. (And they have a higher voter turnout than Wisconsin does.) It may change the calculus a bit for people running for local offices, but those races usually turn on candidates doing doors and getting out to meet people in their districts. But working with other candidates, lit drops, phone calls, etc can be more coordinated and every group does not have to duplicate voter turnout efforts twice a year. Doing voter turnout for a statewide campaign in the Spring is virtually impossible since it very costly, which is why third party groups can have an inordinate effect on the election. I say move them to the Fall.

  5. Ruth, although I have no personal experience, logically, i think it should be cheaper for candidates to campaign in our spring elections.

    With only a small percentage of people who vote in spring, any candidate can get the voter lists for previous spring elections, identify those individuals who always vote no matter what offices are open, and engage in direct solicitation for their votes, by person, phone or mail. The rest of the voters can be disregarded.

    However, in a fall election, a candidate would likely have to in expensive advertising that will cover the 71 percent who vote in fall. I think that would be much more expensive.

    I certainly do agree with you, though, that spring elections make it too easy for special interest groups to exercise undue influence.

  6. I wonder what the people of Minnesota are paying in taxes for the vote-recount and court time in the Coleman-Franken Senate race? I’ll bet it will be over a million dollars. When was that election? Oh, yes, last November. Four months ago. When will it be over? Who knows.

    Having nonpartisan elections at the same time as partisan elections is a bad idea. You may save a few bucks and lose judicial integrity. Wisconsin wastes millions of tax dollars every day on boondoggles and wasteful bureaucracies, like the UW System and corrections. We could save a lot more money closing some prisons and a few UW campuses than moving the election from spring to fall.

  7. It probably would be a bit more expensive for some candidates to campaign in the fall rather than the spring. But that goes to the direct issue behind this change — is it better to have 20% of the people voting for city and county government officials in the spring or should 70% of the people vote for theofficials in the fall? Again, most candidates campaign door-to-door. Is there anything wrong with having them stop at more doors to get elected? They are ususally begging people to vote in the spring. One could argue that elections could be more robust if more people were involved in the election process. While one can make an argument on cost for local elections, I think it makes no sense whatsoever to have statewide elections in the spring. A candidate would have to raise millions of dollars to do a credible get-out-the-vote campaign statewide. It has never been done and that is part of the reason why only 20% of the people vote in the spring.

    When I voted in the primary earlier this month, there were only two items on the ballot — DPI and a circuit court race — I was voter 104 at 7 p.m. There was no one else even voting in my polling place, yet there were 6 volunteers there. Not a great use of resources.

    I would guess a majority of people in Wisconsin would not even know there are spring elections. I know it confused me when I moved here. People think elections are in the fall.

    As for the cost. I believe Wisconsin’s law on requiring a hand recount for disputed elections is similar to Minnesota’s. And our costs would be significant if a state-wide recount were required here. Minnesota has had other difficult close elections. Karl Rolvaag won the closest gubernatorial election in state history by defeating incumbent Elmer L. Andersen by just 91 votes out of over 1.3 million cast in 1962. The election was held November 6, 1962, but the results of the race for governor were not known until a 139-day recount was completed in March 1963. (I remember my political science professor talking about it in college.)

    The integrity of Minnesota judicial campaign system has not been called into question like Wisconsin’s has even though they elect non-partisan judges in the fall.

  8. I’m afraid I’m still going to have to disagree with you, Ruth.

    My voting experience this spring was similar to yours (no. 134 at 7 p.m., alone in the room except for the elections workers). But the people who volunteer to work elections are paid peanuts; the cost of paying them is de minimis.

    And if a recount is needed, it would be far more expensive to do in fall, when voter turnout is three times as high.

    As far as comparisons to Minnesota go, Minnesota has been litigating over their campaign system for a decade now. It can’t be that perfect.

    And we have had no legitimate complaints over the integrity of our system (we’ve had legitimate complaints about television ads, I agree), but I don’t think it affects the integrity of the system.

    Ultimately, all campaign materials for judicial elections are inherently misleading, unless they are limited to what you would see on a resume: XY Law School, 19ZZ; Smith and Jones 19ZZ-2009.

    As Nick noted, if you held them in the fall, the tone of the campaign would only sink lower.

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