For years, so-called “good government” groups had been fighting to “level” the playing field in judicial elections. They always believed that public financing of elections virtually eliminated advantages for certain candidates. Last session, such a framework was passed into law. (Perhaps not-so-ironically, this occurred when conservatives were elected to a majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Democrats controlled the Legislature and Governorship.)
Liberals celebrated the new “fairness” in Court elections. In last week’s Isthmus newspaper (to which I contribute a column), editor Bill Lueders asked aloud whether this month’s Supreme Court primary was the “fairest election ever.”
That means the Feb. 15 primary will occur on a relatively level playing field, with each contender having roughly equal resources. (Whether this will hold true for the general election is unclear, as court challenges or the GOP Legislature could yet kill public financing.)
On Tuesday night, we saw the results of the “fairest election ever.” Incumbent Justice David Prosser dominated his opponents, receiving 55% of the vote in a four-way primary. Prosser will now face his closest challenger, JoAnne Kloppenburg, who received 25% of the vote, in the spring general election.
So why did Prosser win by such a large margin in a primary election in which spending was equal? Perhaps it was due to Wisconsin residents’ preference for conservatives on the Supreme Court. But it likely had a lot to do with Prosser’s status as an incumbent.
And this is how, as argued on this blog previously, public financing harms challengers. If spending is level, races will almost always favor the incumbent, as being in office had enormous advantages. Incumbents have name recognition, voter contacts, and a record on which to run.
In order to overcome that advantage, challengers often need to spend more money to get their message out. But when each candidate has only a $100,000 grant to spend, it is much more difficult to overcome the natural advantages of incumbency.
So while liberals may have thought the Supreme Court election was “fair,” it was anything but. The most equitable way to conduct elections is to allow fundraising that translates into increased political speech. Otherwise, voters will be inclined to support the guy they know.