The Wisconsin Supreme Court flipped majority blue this week, as Democrat-backed circuit court judge Janet Protasiewicz defeated conservative former justice Daniel Kelly in a swing state election dubbed one of the most important of the year.
The balance-deciding win — resulting in the nonpartisan court’s first liberal-leaning majority in 15 years — was driven by record numbers at the polls, with more than 1.7 million people casting their vote in the spring election, representing at least 36 percent of the voting population. The voter engagement, along with early reports of high youth turnout, has spurred reflection on the impact of youth-led civic organizing and the successes of national networks behind the push.
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Across the nation, young, issue-based voters have nurtured a growing concern toward protections for what matters to them, their health, and their rights, and they’re using their voices in creative calls to action for generational organizing.
Many Wisconsin voters were focused on a legislative future centered around reproductive justice and voting rights. This year, the court is expected to revisit the state’s outdated 1849 abortion law, which bans abortion in nearly all circumstances, and could revisit redistricting maps criticized as gerrymandered.
Behind the record-breaking flood of voters were both national and local efforts from youth-oriented political groups, adding digital exposure and generational organizing power to the high-digit campaign. The race was the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history, triple the previous record of $15 million set in 2004 in Illinois, CBS reported.
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin chose some furrier campaign tactics on the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus. Credit: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Democratic Party of Wisconsin
From app-based pushes to traditional, on-the-ground campus campaigning, the success of national organizers in Wisconsin is adding new considerations to an ongoing conversation on the power of the youth vote and how to harness it.
Voters of Tomorrow is a Gen Z-focused advocacy group founded in 2019 by then-17-year-old Santiago Mayer. Voters of Tomorrow seeks to build youth political power through online and on-campus campaigns as well as generation-focused research that informs a “Gen Z Agenda” for economic justice, healthcare, climate and educational justice, and more. The organization operates a national network of young “political strategists, communicators, and policy-wonks,” it explains, “to encourage Gen Z to vote for pro-democracy candidates.”
In Wisconsin, the group partnered with college advocates, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, and Grassroots Democrats HQ to organize the youth vote on the ground. Grassroots Democrats HQ reported reaching more than 435,000 voters ahead of the election, including 35,000 calls to young voters.
NextGen America, a national youth voting organization founded in 2013, seeks to mobilize young and first-time voters for progressive policies. In 2020, the organization reported a historic youth voter turnout, ushering 4.6 million young people to the polls.
Ahead of the Wisconsin election, members of NextGen America hosted a dating app campaign to get people out to vote. Taking to the customizable options on the app Hinge, advocates changed their personal locations and profiles to appeal to Wisconsin “matches,” turning dating opportunities into political advocacy. First attempted during the 2022 Wisconsin Senate races, the organization’s leadership said they’ve found success in unconventional campaigns, especially in a state with such a strong youth voter presence.
Traditional methods still helped, though. NextGen America, and its political action committee NextGen PAC, also connected with young voters on college campuses and online.
“Young people are the future of progressive politics and the future of our democracy,” said NextGen PAC President Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez in a statement responding to Protasiewicz’s victory. “Today’s victory for Judge Janet Protasiewicz proves yet again that when you invest and commit to educating, mobilizing, and connecting with young people on the issues that matter to them, they will use their voices and stand up for what they believe in.
“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. 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.”
Swing Left is a grassroots political advocacy organization founded in 2017 to provide voters with information about nearby swing elections. Since then, the organization has expanded its progressive election guides, in collaboration with groups like voter outreach organization Vote Forward, and collected millions of funds for Democratic candidates.
Swing Left volunteers campaigned in Wisconsin and supported youth-led voter outreach on college campuses.
Project 72 WI is a newly-founded and youth-focused organization that began a statewide campaign in Wisconsin to educate student voters ahead of the supreme court election. The group’s strategies combined on-the-ground organizing with digital outreach efforts, including planning and promoting social events like drag nights and college bar trivia, and reaching potential voters through TikTok.
Project 72 WI also offered paid opportunities and training for college campus organizers and Get-Out-The-Vote organizing fellows ahead of the race.
Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) is a Milwaukee-based, “Black and Brown-led” nonprofit founded in 2017 to organize young people for social, racial, and economic justice. The organization leads state and local advocacy campaigns, invests in youth organizing training, and hosts leadership opportunities for students of color.
Leaders Igniting Transformation, supported by national youth advocacy group Alliance for Youth Action, conducted a statewide door-knocking campaign and outreach effort to address concerns of voter fatigue and voter suppression among its target demographic ahead of the spring election. Along with publishing its own comprehensive youth voter guide, the organization spoke to more than 50,000 people to galvanize the vote.