In Wisconsin Supreme Court Election, Abortion Rights Prove Decisive

Abortion rights supporters rally at the Bigger Than Roe national march in Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Jan. 22, 2022. (Sara Stathas for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

If the fall elections weren’t enough to prove that abortion rights are driving elections, the Wisconsin supreme court election this week is yet more evidence that American voters will show up at the polls to defend abortion rights. Wisconsin voters turned out in droves to elect progressive Judge Janet Protasiewicz (pronounced pro-tuh-SAY-witz) to the state’s supreme court, defeating the conservative Daniel Kelly, who previously served for four years on the court before losing reelection in 2020.

The Wisconsin’s supreme court election grabbed national attention because the court was evenly divided—3-3. The election flips control of the court from conservatives to progressives for the first time in 15 years. The new progressive majority on the court is likely to reverse the state’s abortion ban and end the use of gerrymandered legislative maps drawn by Republicans. They will also determine any election cases surrounding the 2024 presidential contest. 

The losing candidate Daniel Kelly advised Republican Party officials on a plan to have a group of Wisconsin Republicans sign paperwork falsely claiming to be electors in the 2020 presidential election.

Protasiewicz beat Kelly by a whopping 11 percentage points. She received 55.5 percent of the vote, winning the top two counties by huge margins (82 percent and 73 percent) and winning four out of six counties. Protasiewicz won not only progressive strongholds such as Madison and Milwaukee, but also many of the state’s smaller cities and rural counties. Kelly got only 44.5 percent of the vote. In a state where elections are often determined by razor-thin margins, the double-digit percentage gap was striking.

Judge Protasiewicz focused her campaign on abortion rights, spending $12 million on television ads in the last six weeks reminding voters that she supports legal abortion. Abortion became illegal overnight in Wisconsin last summer after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Wisconsin’s 1849 law banning abortion in nearly all cases went back into effect. Protasiewicz’s closing television ad in the days before the election declared, “Judge Janet Protasiewicz believes in women’s freedom to make their own decisions when it comes to abortion.” Wisconsin’s leading anti-abortion organizations endorsed Kelly.

Republicans tried to make the election about crime. The state’s business lobby, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, ran an ad claiming that Protasiewicz had given a light sentence to a convicted rapist. The victim in that case objected to the ad, saying it had retraumatized her and that she had no problem with the length of the sentence. 

Protasiewicz’s victory gives Democrats a chance to re-establish not only reproductive rights, but also labor rights and fair elections devastated by over a decade of Republican domination in the state, starting when Scott Walker became governor in 2011. Since then, Wisconsin Republicans have worked to destroy unions and engaged in extreme gerrymandering to give themselves wildly disproportionate majorities in both houses of the state legislature and the state’s congressional delegation. Judge Protasiewicz has called Republican-drawn election maps “rigged” and “unfair.”  

After the Wisconsin vote was in, Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted, “You give us hope that for our Democracy and for our freedoms, the flag is still there.”

Judge Protasiewicz’s win will have an enormous impact on the 2024 presidential election in Wisconsin, where fewer than 23,000 votes have decided four of the last six presidential races.

On Tuesday night, Protasiewicz told her supporters, “Today’s results mean two very important and special things. First, it means that Wisconsin voters have made their voices heard. They’ve chosen to reject partisan extremism in this state. And second, it means our democracy will always prevail. Too many have tried to overturn the will of the people. Today’s results show that Wisconsinites believe in democracy and the democratic process.”

The race mobilized young people and women to vote in huge numbers. More than 1.7 million people cast ballots in the race this year, beating the 1.6 million ballots cast in the 2020 race when there was also a presidential primary. 

“Young Wisconsin voters are pissed off and tired of their basic rights being threatened and taken away, and today they said ‘enough’ to extremist leaders like Dan Kelly whose only plan is to take us back in time,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of NextGen America, which empowers young people to vote. “Abortion rights and voting rights are too important for us to stand idly by, and young people will stop at nothing to protect the future we believe in.”

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U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.