Last week’s Wisconsin election was extraordinary for a number of reasons.
Unlike more than a dozen other states, Wisconsin plowed ahead with the April 7 election in the face of the coronavirus pandemic after the intervention of the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
When results were finally reported on April 13, former Vice President Joe Biden won the state’s Democratic presidential primary, and a judge backed by Democrats was elected to a 10-year term on the Wisconsin’s Supreme Court.
That high-stakes judicial race was at the heart of the conflict around the election. Many liberals and election experts accused Republicans of trying to suppress turnout by holding the election during a public health crisis.
But despite the extremely challenging conditions, which included shuttered polling places, a statewide stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines, voter turnout was surprisingly robust.
The preliminary estimated turnout rate was roughly 34% of the state’s electorate. While less than the turnout for the 2016 presidential primary, it was greater than 2012 and about equal to 2008.
“All of those factors seemed to conspire to really reduce voter turnout,” said Barry Burden, the director of the University of Wisconsin’s Elections Research Center. “But in the end, the voters responded.”
Throughout the past month, as the coronavirus shut down much of the American economy and infrastructure, over and over, voters have continued to cast ballots in big numbers.
March 17, the last primary date with multiple states voting, saw Arizona and Florida both surpass their primary turnout numbers from 2016, thanks in large part to those states’ extensive vote-by-mail and early voting opportunities.
While this year’s 34% turnout rate in Wisconsin was less than 2016’s 47% rate, that year also featured competitive primary races for the Republican and Democratic presidential contests.
Experts point to the highly contested state Supreme Court race, but also at the broader political activism that was energized by President Trump’s election in 2016.
“I think it is a sign of agitation in the electorate,” Burden said. “We’ve seen this really during the Trump-era since he came to the White House: Turnout rates have been extremely high. The 2018 midterm election was the highest turnout in a century in any midterm.”
The pandemic, and the government’s response to it, could be giving people even more reason to vote, Burden said.
“I have no problem being out here today because I believe that in the midst of this pandemic, if we can still vote, we should,” Eulandria Biddle, a voter at Washington High School in Milwaukee, told member station WUWM. “We should get out and do our service to get out here and vote.”
While the nominating contests are all but wrapped up, chances are good that social distancing measures and fears about additional outbreaks will hang over the November general election.
But those fears may not dampen what had been expected to be record participation rates, said Charles Stewart, an elections expert at MIT who specializes in turnout.
“The turnout models we have may not have to go out the window,” Stewart said.
Absentee voting way up
While overall turnout in Wisconsin may have ended up in a surprisingly typical place, what was noteworthy was how the state got there.
“It essentially turned the pattern of voting in Wisconsin upside down, from being mostly in-person to being mostly by mail. And that happened in about a three-week period,” Burden said. “There’s been nothing like this that I have ever seen, in any state, ever.”
While Wisconsin has not released final absentee vote totals, the most recent data of absentee ballot requests and returns suggests that at least 71% of votes cast last Tuesday were absentee. For comparison: In the 2016 general election in Wisconsin, and in 2018’s midterms, fewer than 30% of votes were cast absentee. And in 2014, fewer than 20% were.
Election administrators say that standing up a comprehensive vote-by-mail system usually takes years and happens in stages.
Stewart said he underestimated how quickly the state would be able to jump to this much absentee voting.
“I thought well, maybe it might get up to 40 or 50%, but not beyond that,” he said.
Overall, the counties with higher overall turnout also voted absentee at a higher rate, according to data compiled by Stewart.
But the strains from such a quick ratcheting up were also apparent.
A court battle over when absentee ballots needed to be mailed by was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court the night before the election, with the court deciding that ballots needed to be postmarked by Election Day, before many thousands of people even received the ballots they requested.
County clerks across the state were reportedly overwhelmed, and with the governor and legislature seemingly unable to come to any agreements on voting-related legislation, it’s unclear whether any new policies will be passed to address what could be an even larger flurry of absentee votes in November.
“The governor and the state legislature are barely on speaking terms at the moment, and so it seems very unlikely that they will come together to pony up the resources and the other changes to state law that clerks will need,” Burden said.
“We don’t know where the pandemic will be by October and November, but it’s almost certain that absentee voting will be more common in Wisconsin going forward.”
People still show up
Even amid a pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people showed up to vote in-person in Wisconsin.
It’s a reminder that even as calls grow louder for states to expand their vote-by-mail efforts, they still need to maintain in-person polling stations that are more accessible for disabled voters and other vulnerable voting populations like low-income voters who are more transient and therefore have more trouble getting ballots mailed to them.
In Milwaukee, that option wasn’t available for many people. The city consolidated its 180 polling places down to five. Milwaukee County had by far the highest amount of absentee ballot requests, but Stewart says turnout could’ve been higher with more opportunity.
“Basically it was almost impossible to vote in-person in Milwaukee,” he said. “And I have to believe that there was demand in Milwaukee for another 35,000 to 50,000 people who wanted to vote if they had an in-person option and didn’t.”
Overall, considering the level of hand-wringing before the election, it may be hard not to see the Wisconsin election as a disaster avoided.
That conclusion should probably wait however, as it still remains to be seen whether the decision to hold an election will result in an uptick in coronavirus transmissions.