Bice: All seven Supreme Court justices voted absentee, even those who hadn’t in the past

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When the state Supreme Court took up Gov. Tony Evers‘ last-minute order to delay the April 7 election, they didn’t have to worry about one possible consequence of their decision. 

No matter what, they wouldn’t be joining thousands of other voters standing in line at the polls the next day.

That’s because all seven justices had already voted absentee, either by going in early and voting in person or by mailing in ballots. 

“They are luckier than the thousands of others who tried to do the same and were unable to,” said state Sen. Chris Larson, a Milwaukee Democrat running for Milwaukee County exec.

Just how unusual was this?

Very. 

In the previous five elections, a majority of the justices voted in person at the polls on election day. Two justices did this in each of the last five elections. In the February primary, four justices voted at the polls on election day while three voted absentee.

In the end, the state Supreme Court voted 4-2 last week to block Evers’ order to postpone the election over concerns about the coronavirus. The justices voted along ideological lines, with the four conservatives opposing Evers’ order and the two liberals voting to uphold it. 

Justice Daniel Kelly did not participate in the case because he was on the ballot, running for a full 10-year term against Dane County Judge Jill Karofsky, a liberal. Kelly, a conservative, was appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The high court’s decision contributed to the confusion on April 7. 

Milwaukee had voters standing for hours in long lines at a mere five polling stations, down from the usual 180. Despite a record number of people voting absentee this election, hundreds of state residents have complained that they requested absentee ballots but didn’t receive them in time to vote. 

RELATED: Wisconsinites came out to vote in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic on an election day unlike any other

RELATED: Why did Milwaukee have just 5 polling places? Aldermen want answers.

That wasn’t a problem for the members of the state Supreme Court.

According to municipal clerks in each of their municipalities, four justices mailed in absentee ballots while three went in early and voted in person. Kelly, for instance, took his family with him to the polls on March 23, said Melissa Klein, the Ottawa town clerk in Waukesha County. 

The last justice to vote was Justice Rebecca Bradley, who voted in person on April 2, Wauwatosa Clerk Melanie Kollmansberger said. Casting a ballot in person before the date of the election is considered an absentee vote. 

“Republicans on the Supreme Court are corrupt hypocrites who forced Wisconsinites to vote in-person during a public health crisis when they themselves enjoyed the safety of casting their ballots absentee,” said Courtney Beyer, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party.

Many Democrats have contended that by holding the election as scheduled, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Supreme Court suppressed the vote, something that could help Kelly’s chances. Republicans have denied this was a motive.

RELATED: Wisconsin’s voter purge lawsuit is a major issue in Supreme Court race between Daniel Kelly, Jill Karofsky

In its decision, the high court found that Evers doesn’t have the authority to postpone the election, which was a presidential primary and a general election for a variety of nonpartisan contests. His order would have moved the contest to June 9. 

“The state’s highest court has spoken: the governor can’t unilaterally move the date of the election,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau said in a joint statement.

Voting records show Supreme Court justices — especially the conservative members — don’t generally like voting absentee. 

Kelly and fellow conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn have gone to polls and voted in person on election day in each of the five previous elections. Bradley, another conservative, has done the same in four of the past five contests, and Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, a conservative, voted in person in three of five.

The two liberal justices — Rebecca Dallet and Ann Walsh Bradley — were acting in accord with their past practices when they voted absentee this time. Walsh Bradley has voted absentee in all of the past five elections, while Dallet has done the same three times.

The only outlier was Justice Annette Ziegler. Unlike her fellow conservatives, she has a preference for voting absentee, having done so in three of the last five elections. 

POLITIFACT WISCONSIN: Did Wisconsin justices vote remotely to deny Wisconsin voters that same right?

Sam Roecker, a spokesman for Karofsky, noted that not only did the conservative justices change how they typically vote during elections but they heard the Evers case virtually. These two actions seem to be a tacit admission, he said, of the danger of large gatherings, such as those that took place at polling places around the state on April 7. 

“It’s pretty obvious they were aware of the fate they were consigning voters to,” said Beyer, the Dem Party flack. Evers’ “safer at home” order directs Wisconsinites to stay home, except for essential tasks, to fend off the coronavirus outbreak.

Charles Nichols, campaign manager for Kelly, said Karofsky’s team and her allies were engaging in “desperate fear-mongering.” Karofsky, incidentally, voted absentee, as she had done only once in the past five elections. 

“Unlike Jill Karofsky, we are not going to make baseless assumptions about the intentions of the other justices,” Nichols said.

So let’s stick to the facts. 

What about Vos and Fitzgerald, the two GOP lawmakers who fought Evers at every step on delaying the election? 

RELATED: Federal judge blisters Gov. Tony Evers and GOP lawmakers for not delaying Wisconsin’s election

Fitzgerald voted absentee on April 2.

This was not standard practice for Fitzgerald, who is running to succeed U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who is retiring. Fitzgerald voted in person in the Town of Clyman in Dodge County on election day in each of the five previous elections.

He did not respond to questions about his absentee vote.

Vos, by contrast, voted in person. He has voted in person at the polls on election day in four of the past five contests. 

The veteran lawmaker said he made a conscious decision to vote in person. 

“I knew that some people would have to vote in person and wanted to see how the process was working so I could understand any concerns,” said Vos, who donned professional protective equipment while working at the polls. “After I completed my volunteer shift in Burlington, I went and voted in Rochester.”

There’s a smart politician. If you’re going to require others to go to the polls, you should be willing to do the same. But, remember, Vos has to run every two years, not once every decade, like those on the state’s highest court. 

RELATED: Many Wisconsin absentee ballots have returned without postmarks and may not be counted because of it

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Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 224-2135 or dbice@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.

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