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Wisconsin race reminds us how important every election is

by Ben Jealous
Ben Jealous

Whether it’s protecting the planet or preserving our democracy, it can seem at times that our individual actions fall short against the biggest challenges. Let me tell you why that isn’t true.

We tend to overlook that issues like these arise in the first place because of the sum of a lot of individual actions. If one by one, half of us switched to powering our homes and cars with solar and wind energy, emissions and fossil fuel extraction would drop precipitously.

It’s the paradox of the aggregate. One of us doing something has a minimal impact, a lot of us doing the same thing moves the needle—for the good or the bad.

Voting is no different. I’ve spent a good part of my career fighting to ensure people can vote and encouraging them to get out and do it.

Next week, on April 4, Wisconsin will hold a spring election, mainly for local races. It’s the kind of election that historically voters across the country skip. Voter turnout in the Wisconsin primaries last month was 21%, and that was a four-point improvement. Badger State voters should see this election differently.

This election will pick the swing vote on the state’s Supreme Court, which is dominated by a far-right majority that’s ruled against everything from broad use of ballot drop boxes to make voting more convenient to the right of citizens’ groups to challenge environmental permits (the dissenting justices said that decision “slam shut the courthouse doors” to Wisconsinites).

The Wisconsin race may even decide the next U.S. presidential election. Those justices may well be called on in 2024 to rule on election challenges in a state whose 10 electoral votes have decided presidential elections. It happened that way in 2020, and the conservative in this year’s race advised the national and state Republican parties and those who sought to submit fake paperwork for Donald Trump electors after he lost the 2020 race.

A few more people stepping up to vote could decide this race. Statewide contests in the Dairy State often turn on razor thin margins. Wisconsin has 72 counties. If 140 more people in each one chooses to vote for the same candidate in the supreme court race, that’s one percentage point in the typical voter turnout in April. If more than 500 people in each county go vote for that person, that’s nearly four points. And even with that boost in turnout, a majority of voters would still have stayed home.

So Wisconsin voters can do a lot to save the country and protect the planet if they cast their ballots. Judging by past races, most Wisconsinites plan to skip this election. The rest of us can do something by texting anyone we know in Wisconsin to let them know how important this election may be. Their State Supreme Court may end up deciding the next U.S. president.

(Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club. He is a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Never Forget Our People Were Always Free, published in January.)

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