Elite cues in state judiciary elections


When it comes to electorates, there’s low-information, and then there’s low-information. State legislative elections features a lot of candidates that voters aren’t very familiar with, for example. An open city council primary like the one we just had in Carbondale — in which 16 candidates were whittled down to 12 for the general — is likely to rely on personal networking as much as anything else. But judicial elections are another beast entirely: Most people don’t really get what judges do, particularly at the appellate level and above (see, for example, Gregory Casey’s “The Supreme Court and Myth”).

So part of electing justices turns out to be lots of irrelevant scare-tactics about how Judge So-and-so wants to let child molesters loose in the schools, but another important part is elite cuing in the form of endorsements. You may not really know anything about the candidates or the job they’re running for, and you may not have the helpful cue of party identification, but it’s easy to sort out the latent partisanship of each candidate’s endorsements. Having said, Wisconsin will have a Supreme Court election in April, between incumbent David Prosser and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg. Let’s look at some of the prominent names in their lists of endorsers:

Prosser – Three former governors, a former lt. governor, apparently every Republican in the state legislature, many county sheriffs and DAs, and the county executive of Waukesha County

Kloppenburg – The county executive of Dane County, the mayor of Madison, several county supervisors, various aldermen, one state representative, and many private citizens.

Non-partisan election status aside, Prosser is the Republican and Kloppenburg the Democrat in this race. Notice the difference between how the parties understand this? The entire Wisconsin GOP is lined up behind Prosser, providing the kind of elite cuing that tells Republican voters how they should cast their ballot, even if they don’t know the first thing about Prosser or Kloppenburg as judges. Wisconsin Democrats, on the other hand, have apparently decided to sit this one out. Keep in mind, like all non-presidential elections, this is a turnout election — getting voters informed and interested in the election is the key to winning, particularly for a challenger. So where are the state legislative caucuses? Where is private citizen Russ Feingold and his considerable organizing and mobilizing weight? This is the first opportunity to demonstrate the energy of the anti-Scott Walker protests can be channeled into something sustained, and it has the added benefit of being a race that will impact the inevitable court decisions about what Walker’s trying to do.

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