Expert stresses the importance of voting in local elections

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Tuesday's Spring Election will feature races in municipalities all over southeastern Wisconsin with people casting votes in their respective elections for Mayor, Alderman, School Board Members, County Board Supervisors and more.

The seats up for grabs during the spring election are considered to be non-partisan. However, Mordecai Lee, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, doesn't see it as such.

"It's almost like, no longer are there non-partisan races," said Lee, who has been studying Wisconsin politics since attending UW-Madison in the 1960s. "When people vote on Tuesday, theoretically, there's going to be no 'D' and no 'R' next to a person's name, but in fact, a lot of the candidates are de facto Republicans or de facto Democrats."

One race Lee used as an example is the race for Wisconsin Court of Appeals District II between incumbent Lori Kornblum and Maria Lazar.

"We're even seeing TV ads in a Court of Appeals race that are using all the code words of left-right politics," Lee explained. "I'm really afraid that, sort of, the glass has been shattered. Once the glass has been shattered, once we move into the politicization of every single race, I don't know how we get back to kind of a fact-based decision-making."

Another non-partisan position that has become politicized in recent years are open school board positions. Several districts in southeastern Wisconsin, including Mequon-Thiensville, Cedarburg, Waukesha and Oconomowoc all have hotly contested seats up for grabs in Tuesday's election. In Waukesha, three candidates are running as conservatives.

"I can't remember ever being asked to analyze a school board race until two years ago," said Lee, adding that school board races took a turn toward politics in the middle of the pandemic. "This was really unusual for Wisconsin. When we voted in school board races we asked ourselves, 'Who's the best? Qualified from the neighborhood? Who do with think has the competence to do it?'

"All of a sudden it was 'Are you pro mask or anti-mask? are you pro vaccine or anti-vaccine?' This really politicized school board races in a way that just happened in an instant."

As grassroot, local races begin to grab more political attention, Lee still fears that voter turnout will be down in the 20 to 30 percent range. That's not the case in Oconomowoc, where the town clerk says she would be surprised if they see a voter turnout below 50 percent of the over 8,000 people living in the town.

"It doesn't matter if it's a highly contested race, they just come out and vote. They're into voting," explained Clerk and Treasurer Lori Opitz. "It's local races and they're very committed with things that happen in the town."

Lee is hopeful other municipalities will follow that trend.

"We pay attention to the Super Bowl. We pay attention to the NBA Championship. The April election on Tuesday is the Super Bowl of non-partisan races," Lee said. "Why would a voter want to stay home and let another voter decide for them if a referendum is going to pass or fail? If a school board is going to become Republican or Democratic. Don't let somebody else make the decision that you want to participate in and you think is important."

To find out what you will see on your ballot on Tuesday, you can visit their website here.

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