Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Going to the polls in Madison felt like being a character in the latest John Grisham novel

Spring Election Polling Place in Madison's Dudgeon School
When we went to vote last night in the spring election, our polling place in Madison's Dudgeon School building was cheerful and colorful and the windows looked out on a fading violet spring sky. But something was off. There was an eerie stillness. Turnout in spring elections is traditionally light, but I wondered whether certain dark forces had succeeded in further depressing turnout for their own nefarious ends. The room was was empty of voters before T and I arrived, and it was empty after we left.

Admittedly, I was in a paranoid frame of mind. I already felt like a bit player in the latest John Grisham novel, The Appeal, which was reviewed in Sunday's NYT Book Review by Steven Brill.
Grisham sticks with his formula for the villains in “The Appeal.” But he paints a more complicated picture of the heroes, while making an important point about how the justice system in more than half of the 50 states is increasingly threatened by the kind of big-money gutter politics that have made so many Americans disgusted with Washington.
Grisham's novel is about an attempted corporate takeover of the Mississippi Supreme Court, and when I read the review, I was struck by the similarity to our own Supreme Court race in Wisconsin, one of our dirtiest judicial contests in years.

That's what got me wondering about the low turnout. The big-bucks mudslinging campaign with which Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) and other business interests attempted to unseat Justice Louis Butler seemed to me to have three goals: 1) Turn voters against Butler with a racist, misleading saturation campaign of TV commercials portraying him as favoring a black rapist who went on to rape again. 2) Force Butler to go negative against challenger Mike Gableman in self defense, which he eventually did. 3) Voter suppression: Provoke a general slimefest to make the general public so angry at both candidates they don't vote, giving WMC voters more leverage in an election most voters tune out.

Paul Soglin has been blogging about this race almost nonstop, including this thoughtful post the other day about the changes in Wisconsin politics the last decade and a half.
Wisconsin politics charged in the 1990's. The undercurrent was previously there, but the nasty forces that worked into organizations like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) were unleashed in the new century when Governor Thompson went to Washington and the extreme right-wing took over the Republican Party and its front organizations. And where there were no clandestine operations, they created new ones.

We know the outcome. The readers of Waxing America need only go through previous posts to see the documentation of sinister groups that lie and ruin the reputations of people and institutions in their effort to destroy government and create a corporate socialism that sucks the life out of public education, city hall, and the courthouse.
Yesterday Soglin's approach turned satirical -- simply a short, Swiftian list of bullet points: Why I Am Voting Today for Michael Gableman. Read it and weep.

Wisconsin is one of about 30 states that don't appoint Supreme Court justices, but instead still elect them. As Brill points out in his review, this is a recipe for disaster, since judicial elections, with their sparse turnouts and voters who know little about the candidates are ripe for abuse by special interests.
It’s bad enough that those in our executive and legislative branches can take contributions from people who have business before them to finance elections quarterbacked by spinmeisters and filled with phony attack ads. But the notion of obscure judges — charged with ruling objectively on crucial, complicated points of law — being showered with millions from lawyers, litigants and other special interests who have cases before them is worse.
No system is perfect, and appointing judges also creates its own potential for abuse. Still, it's hard to imagine anything any worse than this year's nonstop bombardment by money and mud. Amending our state constitution may be an idea whose time has come. But it wasn't on the ballot last night. When I went to the polls and played my assigned role in the legal thriller this race has become, I did the only thing I could do: I voted for the good guy.

PS: Long after I went to bed the good guy lost. The smears against our first African-American state Supreme Court justice did their job. Butler became the first incumbent high court justice to be defeated in more than 40 years. Wisconsin now has a conservative Supreme Court majority. Tell me again how America has changed, and this is going to be a great year for Democrats.


Emily said...

America has changed, but I'm less and less optimistic about this being a good year for Democrats and fair-thinking people with each passing day.

It would help if we stopped tearing ourselves apart.

cathy said...

Shouldn't we change the name from 'Wisconsin Supreme Court' to 'Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Supreme Court'?

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Sad ... Fightin' Bob must be spinning in his grave while ole Fascist Joe McCain ... oops, McCarthy, must be smiling ...

Wisconsin what have you become??