Tuesday, April 30, 2024

To be truly fair Wisconsin courts must be free from big political money

For release: Tuesday - April 30, 2024

Image: A Gavel

"We went from being the progressive good government promised land to the political wasteland of the country."


The Wisconsin Examiner released Jay Heck's guest commentary piece on 4.29.24.


The April 12 announcement by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, our state’s longest serving and most respected and distinguished court member, that she will not run for re-election in 2025, sent shockwaves through the political biosphere.

Next year’s spring election was already expected to be hugely expensive and fiercely contested.  But now, with the three-term justice bowing out, the stakes for ideological control of Wisconsin’s highest court are even greater. The price tag of the April 2025 election to succeed Justice Bradley is universally predicted to exceed the astronomical $57 million spent in 2023 in Wisconsin between current Justice Janet Protaciewicz and her opponent, former Justice Daniel Kelly — by far the largest amount of money ever spent in any state supreme court election in American history.

The unprecedented and obscenely high amount of political money being raised and spent in Wisconsin Supreme Court elections is a fairly new and horrific development in our state. It wasn’t always this way here and it cannot and should not continue. 

When I started with Common Cause in Wisconsin in 1996, the Badger State was still considered to be the national beacon for democracy, competitive but civil political discourse and clean elections and — most notably — was said to have the best, most impartial and least corruptible system of courts, at all levels, in the nation.  

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, was looked upon as the gold standard for how a state’s highest court should be elected and how it should conduct itself in the dispensation of justice to its citizens. It was widely respected, admired and even revered.   

The Supreme Court in turn set the tenor, tone and standard for Wisconsin’s Court of Appeals, circuit courts and municipal courts — all also widely praised and heralded.

Among the foremost champions in the nation for democracy and of free and fair elections, Wisconsinites decided long ago that our judges at all levels should be elected by the citizenry — not appointed or selected by a singular, select public official or by some elite entity. And so, since achieving statehood in 1848 Wisconsin has held nonpartisan elections for judges, almost invariably in the spring when voter turnout is never as robust as it is in partisan, November elections.

For many years the system worked well in Wisconsin. Elections for the Wisconsin Supreme Court were relatively tame and civil affairs where candidates were judged on their impartiality and on their judicial qualifications and temperament. Political affiliation and partisan leanings were not only downplayed, they were discouraged and much frowned upon. The central focus of Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates was on their impartiality and ability to uphold that long-held legal principle that justice is or should be blind, that courts should not make judgments based on appearance or on pre-ordained political disposition. What was prized above all by voters was the behavior any citizen would want and expect from a justice: that she or he be fair and impartial. 

But beginning in 2007 Wisconsin Supreme Court elections experienced a seismic shift. Partisan conservative special interest groups led by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) cynically calculated that buying influence with the Wisconsin Supreme Court was at least as important and far more cost effective than trying to buy a friendly legislative majority. And so they began pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of it secret or “dark” money into judicial races to support candidates for the high court they deemed sufficiently “business friendly.”  

In 2009, the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court also adopted a new recusal rule for justices and judges who were the recipients of campaign contributions.  In many other states in the nation, justices and judges must step away from and not participate in cases where one or more of the parties has contributed to that judge beyond a determined threshold, for the very rational and evident reason that a larger campaign contribution likely had an influence on the recipient and that transaction thereby created a conflict of interest for the justice or judge.  

But the Wisconsin Supreme Court majority adopted verbatim a recusal rule written by WMC which was essentially that no recusal at all is required if a campaign contribution is received. It is up to each justice or judge to decide whether or not to step aside. As a result, according to a 2014 study of judicial recusal rules across the nation, Wisconsin had the 47th weakest such rules of the 50 states. That “self-recusal” standard remains in place today.

The Wisconsin Legislature and former Gov. Jim Doyle reacted to the shocking special interest spending frenzy by deep-pocketed special interest groups in the 2007 and 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court elections by enacting into law sweeping and effective bipartisan campaign finance reform legislation — the Impartial Justice Act of 2009 — which imposed voluntary spending limits of $400,000 on candidates for the high court in return for full public financing of their campaigns – and no solicitation of private contributions. With no private money flowing into their campaigns, justices could be truly impartial and beholden to no campaign donor other than to the public. 

The new law was the most advanced and sweeping of any judicial campaign finance system in the nation and a model for clean elections and in reducing the influence of money on the judiciary.

But less than 18 months later in 2011, incoming Gov. Scott Walker and the new Republican legislative majority repealed the Impartial Justice Act and went even further by ending the 30-year-old partial public financing system and spending limits for all other state elective offices.

And then in 2015, Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature took an axe to the remaining safeguards and limitations in Wisconsin’s campaign finance law, including lifting virtually all limits on special interest money that could be raised and spent, weakening disclosure requirements and, most alarmingly, legalizing campaign coordination between special interest groups running phony issue advocacy communications with candidates — including Supreme Court candidates.

This insidious coordination had long been prohibited in Wisconsin and still is in almost every other state in the nation and in federal elections.

In less than a decade, between 2007 and 2015, Wisconsin was transformed from one of the more transparent and least “big money influenced” political campaign systems in the nation to one of the states with the least transparent disclosure requirements, corrupted by outside big dollar special interest groups and big donors. 

We went from being the progressive good government promised land to the political wasteland of the country.  

While there likely is not a lot that can or will be done to improve and reform Wisconsin’s judicial elections before the next state Supreme Court contest in April 2025, political leaders of all ideological stripes ought to begin to think about how to change the corrupt status quo.  Here are a few suggestions for inclusion in the necessary clean-up:

  • Re-establish an “impartial justice” law for the public financing of state Supreme Court elections modeled after the 2009 law which was in place for only one election before it was repealed.  Update and revise it to better fit current times and circumstances including more realistic spending limits and higher public financing grants.
  • Establish clear recusal rules for judges at all levels in Wisconsin that clearly decree that if a certain campaign contribution is reached or surpassed beyond a certain threshold amount, then the beneficiary of that contribution (or of the expenditure against her/his opponent) must recuse from any case in which the contributor is a party before the court.
  • Restore sensible limitations on the transfer of and acceptance of campaign funds and make illegal again campaign coordination between outside special interest groups engaged in issue advocacy with all candidates for public office — particularly judges.
  • Petition the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the disastrous 2010 Citizens United vs F.E.C. decision which ended over 100 years of sensible regulation of unlimited corporate, union and other outside special interest money in federal and by extension state elections, unleashing the torrential flood of campaign cash drowning democracy today.

Wisconsin needs to begin to figure out a better way to elect state Supreme Court justices and judges at all levels and those discussions need to begin in earnest now.  The upcoming 2025 state Supreme Court election to replace Justice Ann Walsh Bradley has already begun.  But there will be no rest for the weary as more equally critical state Supreme Court elections follow in April 2026, 2027, and 2028.

We cannot continue down the current path. If there is no change a $100 million election is in our immediate future. We can and must do better. Wisconsin enacted bipartisan legislation to fix our state Supreme Court elections in 2009 and we can and should again.  


Jay Heck
608/512-9363 (cell)

Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 Johnson St, Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703


Friday, April 26, 2024

Witnessing the Election Process

For release: Friday - April 26, 2024

Image: Voters in a polling place: WTMJ 4 News photo

Common Cause Wisconsin weighs in on the Role of the Election Observer

This week the Wisconsin Elections Commission held a public hearing for comments about their draft administrative rule on election observation. Common Cause Wisconsin submitted this statement in support of a rule that will provide clarity and uniformity for election observers to witness the election process while allowing election officials to complete their duties transparently and unobstructed and voters to cast their ballots privately and with confidence. You can see TMJ4 News coverage here and read the Common Cause statement below.

Jay Heck, Executive Director, Common Cause Wisconsin

TO: Legislative Members of the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, Wisconsin Elections Commissioners and Staff

FROM: Jay Heck, Executive Director of Common Cause in Wisconsin

DATE: April 24, 2024

RE: Statement from Common Cause Wisconsin on Wisconsin Election Commission Rule on Election Observer, Rule EL 4

Common Cause Wisconsin (CC/WI) supports the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) Draft Election Observer, Rule EL 4, which establishes much needed clear rules and standards for election observers. Founded in 1970, CC/WI is the state’s largest non-partisan citizens political reform advocacy organization with more than 8,000 members and activists in every county in Wisconsin.

Common Cause Wisconsin has recruited volunteer observers over many years and for several election cycles to be able to have our members observe and monitor the election process at polling locations throughout the state. Members of CC/WI have long been eager to have an opportunity to be part of the Wisconsin Election Protection programs in many different capacities, but they have particularly emphasized the value and importance of being trained as nonpartisan election observers by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin for Election Day.

Common Cause Wisconsin was an active participating member of the WEC Election Observer Advisory Committee to assist with the development of the draft rule. It is the position of CC/WI that election observers need clear rules in order to carry out their tasks at polling locations, and the legislative approval of the Draft Election Observer Rule EL 4 will help protect voting rights while informing observers to be able to better cooperate with election officials. The rule seeks to benefit observers but will also preserve and enhance access to the election process, and help improve transparency, security, and confidence in Wisconsin’s elections.

Common Cause Wisconsin supports Draft Election Observer Rule EL 4 in establishing clear rules and standards for observers at the state’s thousands of polling places. The rule strikes a careful and important balance between the election officials being able to carry out their jobs, an observer’s access and ability to be able to view the voting process, and a voter's right to privacy and confidentiality while casting a ballot.

The rule is also comprehensive and responsive to the many points of concern members of the advisory committee named specifically at the meetings. These areas include the use of recording equipment, how observers can interact with voters and election officials while in the polling place, respecting a voter’s right to privacy and the handling of confidential information, an observer’s role when working with Special Voting Deputies, the safety and authority of election officials and chief inspectors, and maintaining an open and transparent process that is observable. The rule ensures the basic needs of election observers are met, such as access to restrooms, access to the voting process without interfering with election officials and voters, and receiving disability-related accommodations.

Common Cause Wisconsin recognizes the challenging task the WEC staff had in compiling comments, first-hand accounts, and feedback of the advisory committee with various nonpartisan organizations and active political parties in the state who often work with election observers. WEC staff and commissioners spent many hours facilitating the advisory committee, considering outside input from individuals and organizations, and having honest discussions about how to improve the role of the election observer. The commissioners should be commended for finding common ground in the submitted draft of this rule in areas they initially had disagreements. As a result, this rule reflects fairness with clear, applicable expectations of election observers.

Observers, voters, and election officials rely on clear information from the WEC and the legislature. Common Cause Wisconsin supports Draft Election Observer Rule EL 4 and requests that the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules move to pass this rule as written (with discussion and consideration of the Clearinghouse Rule 24-032 Wisconsin Legislative Council [1] comments that offer clarifying suggestions). Establishing clear rules and standards for election observers across the state will help improve citizen confidence in the voting process and help observers in their important role of witnessing the election process.


[1] https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/code/misc/chr/lc_filed/2024/032/cr_24_032_lc_clearinghouse_document_032_ph.pdf


Jay Heck
608/512-9363 (cell)

Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 Johnson St, Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703


Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Fair Voting Maps for Wisconsin: What's Next?

For release: Wednesday - April 10, 2024

Image: Wisconsin Deserves Fair Maps Beyond 2024

Join Fellow Fair Maps Supporters in Wausau on April 20th

It has been nearly two months since the enactment into law of fair state legislative district voting maps for Wisconsin effective for the 2024 elections. On February 19, Gov. Tony Evers signed legislation establishing new and much fairer and more competitive Wisconsin Assembly and Senate districts submitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court after the Court struck down as unconstitutional unfair, partisan gerrymandered maps rammed into place during 2021-22. Common Cause Wisconsin (CC/WI) and other reformers supported those maps because they were great for voters even if partisan Republicans and Democrats didn't favor them.

Currently, the Wisconsin Elections Commission is working to get the new district lines in place and ready for the upcoming state legislative elections including for the August primary and the November general elections. These new maps, selected in part because they offered the most stability and certainty for Wisconsin voters and are less susceptible to a legal challenge than any of the other maps submitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, are likely to remain in place until the next decennial Census in 2030, followed by the 2031 redistricting process.

But these current maps are only a temporary solution until 2030-31. The current, completely inadequate and partisan redistricting system that caused gerrymandered maps to be enacted into law in 2011 and then again in 2021-22 is still "on the books" in Wisconsin. Therefore, a new law changing how redistricting is done in the future is essential for fair voting maps to survive and be made a permanent fixture of Wisconsin law.

On Saturday, April 20th fair maps proponents will be gathering in Wausau to begin to discuss this matter and start to map out a path toward achieving a nonpartisan redistricting process for Wisconsin to be in place and ready to accomplish redistricting of state legislative and congressional districts in 2031. CC/WI Co-Chair Penny Bernard Schaber, a former Wisconsin state representative from Appleton and many other fair maps advocates will be on hand to talk and learn along with you and every Wisconsinite who is interested in making fair voting maps and nonpartisan redistricting a permanent part of the political landscape in Wisconsin.

If you want to know what comes next for keeping fair maps for Wisconsin and want to have a direct impact on better policy and redistricting reforms and want to help keep state legislators accountable to the people of Wisconsin, then join leaders, activists, and people from across the state in an interactive and engaging planning event on Saturday, April 20th in Wausau. You can opt to attend in person or virtually. We need your voice to help with the next steps to ensure we have Fair Maps beyond 2024. 

For more information and to REGISTER go here: https://bit.ly/FMC_StrategyPlanning2024

On Wisconsin!  Forward.
Jay Heck, Executive Director, Common Cause Wisconsin

Jay Heck
608/512-9363 (cell)

Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 Johnson St, Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703


Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Today is Spring Election Day - Vote TODAY!

For release: Tuesday - April 2, 2024

Image: I am a voter

Vote NO on the Two Statewide Constitutional Amendment Ballot Questions

Today is the perfect day to flex your democracy muscles by participating in the April Spring Election. Your vote will help determine some of the policies that will guide our communities and state in years to come.
This email will help you understand what you need to do today to ensure your vote is counted and that you are prepared to mark your ballot.

Mail-in Absentee Ballot Return
If you still have an absentee ballot that was mailed to you and you have not returned it yet, be sure to personally hand return your completed ballot TODAY. Absolutely Do NOT mail it! All ballots need to be received no later than 8:00 PM today (Tuesday) on Election Day. Your clerk and myvote.wi.gov will have information about where you can return your ballot.
Don't forget: The ballot envelope needs a witness signature and the complete address of the witness, filled out by the witness.
You can track your ballot through the official ballot tracker on MyVote. Don't see that your ballot was received? Contact your clerk for further information.

In-Person Voting at your Polling Location on Election Day 
If you are planning to vote in person at the polls, read the information below so you are prepared when you show up to vote at your polling location. Polls are open from 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM today, Tuesday, April 2nd.

Polling Location 
Polling places can change from election to election. To find out where to go to cast your ballot, visit the Find My Polling Place page on the MyVote Wisconsin website and type in your address.

You can register to vote on Election Day at your polling location. Being registered to vote means being registered at your current address. You need to have lived at your current address for at least 28 days prior to Election Day in order to register to vote in that election district or ward. You'll need to bring a proof of residence document to complete your registration (this document can be shown electronically - like on your phone or tablet).

Photo ID 
State law requires you to show one of the limited number of acceptable photo IDs in order for you to be able to vote. If you have a Wisconsin driver's license or a Wisconsin Department of Transportation-issued ID card, then you’re all set. Selected other forms of ID work too, and it’s very important to check the official list of acceptable IDs at Bring It to The Ballot to make sure you have what you need.
What if you don't have an acceptable ID to vote today? You can ask for AND vote with a provisional ballot. But, for your ballot to be counted, you MUST either come back to your polling place with an acceptable form of ID before it closes at 8:00 PM on Election Day OR bring your ID to your municipal clerk's office by 4:00 PM the Friday after the election (Friday, April 5th). If you don't have an acceptable ID for voting and need help getting one, call or text the VoteRiders helpline 866-ID-2-VOTE for assistance.

Your Ballot 
You will find primarily local and possibly some state election contests on your ballot. This may include City Council, Village President, Judges, Mayor, School Board, and other offices. (Find out what is on your ballot at MyVote). These offices and the people who serve in these roles have a direct impact on your life.
Get to know who wants to represent you and which candidate best represents your values before you vote. Find candidate and ballot information from the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin at Vote411. Also, there are TWO Statewide Ballot Questions on your ballot. You should know that we believe​ these two statewide ballot questions would adversely affect voting in Wisconsin, and will make changes to our state’s constitution if they pass (and we think they should be rejected with a no vote). You can read the wording of these questions and more about why they should NOT be supported in this previous post from Common Cause WI.

College Students voting in Wisconsin 
Are you a public or private college or university student voting in Wisconsin? Or do you know a student who wants to vote in Wisconsin? Photo IDs issued by Wisconsin colleges and universities may or may not be compliant with Wisconsin law to vote. We can help you find out, here: Three Things College Students Need to Do To Vote in Wisconsin

Have questions or need some assistance? 
Help is just a call, text, or email away.
If you experience problems at the polls or have questions, there is help. Call Election Protection at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) for support from nonpartisan election protection volunteers with any questions you have or to report problems.
Voters with disabilities have the right to have ready access to any polling place. This includes the right to use an accessible voting machine, getting assistance marking and returning an absentee ballot, and voting curbside at a polling location. Call the Disability Rights Wisconsin Voter Hotline for assistance: 1-844-347-8683. Or email: info@disabilityvote.org. Additional online resources are also at the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition website.

Cast your ballot and make your voice heard and your vote count in this April Election! Encourage anyone and everyone you know who is eligible to vote in Wisconsin to do so in person at their polling place until 8 PM tonight or to return their absentee ballot to their election clerk’s office if they still have it and have not yet returned it.

In lower turnout Spring elections like this one your voice matters and makes a difference even more so because fewer people participate. So, exercise your constitutional right to vote. And again, we urge your vote against the two state constitutional ballot questions.

On Wisconsin. Forward!

Jay Heck, Executive Director, Common Cause Wisconsin

152 Johnson St, Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703

Jay Heck
Executive Director
608/512-9363 (cell)
Common Cause in Wisconsin