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What Democracy Looks Like When We Actually Show Up

As you probably already know, yesterday was spring election day in Wisconsin. With a margin just about as slim as it gets (about 200 votes) in the race for State Supreme Court Justice (and a recount looming), it seems that the Democratic candidate, JoAnne Kloppenburg, has beaten her opponent, Republican Justice David Prosser.

No matter how the recount turns out, it was a stunning outcome. Kloppenburg was a virtual unknown, facing a long-time incumbent who had bested her by 30 points in the Feb. 15 primaries. Her victory seemed virtually impossible.

Equally amazing was yesterday’s turnout. Although the final certified ballot count will no doubt be a bit different, roughly 1.48 million Wisconsinites went to the polls to cast their votes. Now, turnout in spring elections is notoriously low, and the one and a half million voters represents only about 36 percent of the voting-eligible population.

But, as always, we should put this figure in context.

The last time Wisconsin had a spring election in which a Supreme Court Justice was on the ballot (the only statewide office in spring elections) was 2009. According to the state’s election board, roughly 794,000 voters cast ballots in that election, a turnout rate of about 19 percent.

So, turnout in yesterday’s election was almost twice as high as in the last comparable election cycle. Moreover, it was not far off from the national turnout rate in the 2010 midterm election (41.6 percent).

The fact that Wisconsin almost doubled its turnout is astounding. It is a credit to the state’s residents – of both parties. It is also a clear message, not just to the elected officials who seem hell-bent on dismantling decades of collective bargaining rights for public servants, but also, more importantly, to the rest of us.

It’s amazing what can happen when we actually show up.

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