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Important lessons from the Wisconsin primary

By Charles Stewart, III



The Greater Wisconsin Primary—votes on April 7, results on April 13—served as a petri dish to study what election might look like if government officials can’t agree in time for November about how to flex longstanding election rules to ensure integrity in elections while guarding public health.

The results show that two things are immediately apparent. First, despite the barriers to voting, turnout in the primary was surprisingly high. Second, the subtle-but-real leftward shift in Wisconsin’s electoral landscape continues.

Wisconsin was in about as bad a bind as one could imagine—a shifting, uncertain health crisis, conflicting court decisions, a deadlocked state election commission, a history of little vote-by-mail, and the most decentralized election administration system in the nation.

The primary occurred amid a rush of other states delaying their primaries into the summer and a call to expand opportunities for mail balloting. Rather than postpone the primary—either because state Republicans wanted to gain an advantage in the statewide supreme court race or Democrats wanted to provide Joe Biden with a nomination-sealing victory—state leaders pushed ahead to vote on April 7. At the last minute, the Democratic governor Tony Evers sought to delay election day and to mail a ballot to every Wisconsin voter, calling the legislature into session to ratify his decision. Following state Republican rejection of Governor Evers’ plan and a series of decisions in the state and U.S. Supreme Court, state election officials had no choice but to go ahead with the voting.

The result was a labored scramble to put on the election, despite the fact that municipal clerks reported that poll workers were refusing to report to work, causing the closing of scores of polling places, and substantial burdens to requesting absentee ballots interfered with the advice of public health officials for people to vote by mail. In the end, potentially thousands of people never received the mail ballots they requested, Election Day voters waited for hours to vote, and trays of undelivered ballots were found after the polling period had closed.

And yet, 1.1 million mail ballots were received in time to be counted—a record for any election in the history of Wisconsin. Overall, 1.5 million ballots were cast in the primary, a turnout rate, measured in terms of the percentage of the voting-age population, that was average for recent years, and above expectations, given the degree of competition in the primaries.

As the nation anticipates running dozens of primaries in the late spring and holding a general election in November, the primary election in Wisconsin offers at least four lessons the nation can learn, as it works to ensure that the presidential election will be safe and secure.

1. It is possible to rapidly expand vote-by-mail even when you’re not prepared for it, but don’t do this at home. Despite having to adjust to an impossible situation, Wisconsin’s state and local election workers largely pulled through and ran an election that reflected the will of the electorate. Part of this was because of the standard “can do” attitude of election officials. Part was due, literally, to calling on the National Guard. The state showed it could push the fraction of mail voters into the 70 percent range, having never before gone above 10 percent. And yet, one could have imagined a very different scenario, especially if the hotly contested supreme court race had had a closer margin. Wisconsin ended up dodging a bullet through a combination of skill and luck.

2. In-person voting is still necessary. The collapse of in-person voting in Green Bay (Brown County) and Milwaukee City (Milwaukee County)—and perhaps in other municipalities, as well—had a measurable effect on turnout. A close inspection of Milwaukee County election results, comparing them to 2016, suggests that Milwaukee City, where only five of 180 polling places opened, saw nearly 16,000 fewer votes than it should have, given the performance of other municipalities in the county. Considering that Milwaukee County relied much more on mail ballots than the rest of the state, the only conclusion to draw is that Milwaukee City did not offer sufficient polling places to meet demand for in-person voting.

3. A surprisingly good primary does not guarantee a surprisingly good general election. The electorate in a general election is different from the primary election. It’s less experienced and has more difficulties at the polls. It will be less capable of jumping through the hoops to get mail ballots, and it will be more reliant on election-day registration to be able to vote in the first place. The municipalities that run elections in Wisconsin will need to double their capacity to handle mail ballots, and ensure that the lion’s share of in-person Election Day polling places are staffed. The state has time to plan and execute, but the stakes in November will be higher.

4. Wisconsin’s electoral landscape is shifting. Even with the difficulties, turnout was well above what a statistical model would have predicted, given the lack of a challenger in one party and the un-competitiveness in the other. Plus, the shift in votes that gave rise to the liberal Jill Karofsky’s victory in the supreme court race—a proxy for partisan politics more broadly—show a pull-back in support for conservative politicians in suburban Milwaukee counties, in counties of the Twin-City exurbs, and in the small “Obama-Trump” counties throughout the state.

Overall, then, the Wisconsin primary has a lot to teach us about preparing for the November election and for preparing us for the eventual outcome. Voters want mail options to vote, but they also need robust in-person options. And, the energy and enthusiasm for electoral politics among Democratic supporters that was shown in the 2018 midterm appears to be carrying over into 2020.


Charles Stewart, III is Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, and Co-Director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. @cstewartiii

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