MADISON, Wis. – Democrats overcame legal confusion, safety concerns and presidential influence to pull off a win in Wisconsin this week, and both parties are mining the results for lessons on how to mobilize voters during a pandemic.
Amid widespread allegations that Republicans were seeking to suppress votes by forging ahead with a chaotic election, statewide turnout for the Supreme Court election and presidential primary was a strong 1.5 million, the second-highest turnout for a Supreme Court election in 20 years. That was no doubt helped by a stunning jump in mail-in voting — from 12% of votes cast last year to 72% — that allowed many voters to exercise their right to vote without risking exposure to the coronavirus at polling places.
Even a drastic reduction in the number of open polling places didn't appear to tank voter turnout. In Milwaukee, where just five of the usual 180 polling places were opened, turnout was 32%, barely trailing the statewide figure.
The numbers no doubt surprised Democrats, who were braced to see liberal judge Jill Karofsky lose to incumbent conservative Dan Kelly after the GOP-led Legislature and conservative courts reject their appeals to delay the election. Photos of masked voters waiting in long lines at polling places became fast symbols of a newly partisan fight over voting rights.
But Karofsky's easy victory has instead come with other lessons about mail-in voting, voter resilience and the political climate in top-tier battleground state. Here's a look at takeaways from Wisconsin:
VOTE BY MAIL IS BIPARTISAN
The Wisconsin Legislature rejected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' late appeal to change the way the election was conducted out of concern for voters' and poll workers safety. But voters essentially did it themselves anyway.
Voters of both parties voted absentee in droves. An analysis by Charles Franklin, a Marquette University pollster and professor, found Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to vote absentee, either in person before the election or by mail.
“There’s just not much evidence that absentees favor either party,” Franklin said.
Those results are no doubt a boost for Democrats across the country as they push to expand and promote vote-by-mail as the safest way to cast a ballot as long as fears of infection persist. Wisconsin's results also suggest that many of President Donald Trump's voters don't share his worries about fraud and mail balloting.
That could be good news for both parties as they plan their get-out-the-vote strategies for November. Democrats and Republicans will likely lean on mail-in programs to reach their voters.
“It’s harder than we thought or worried to keep people away from voting,” said Charles Stewart, an MIT professor who tracks mail voting. “People will ask for mail ballots if they’re available to them in larger numbers.”
Still, there’s no question that voting would have been more robust without the chaos. Stewart estimated that the closing of poll sites in Milwaukee and other cities kept as many as 100,000 from casting ballots. Tens of thousands of absentee ballots sent through the mail were likely never counted because they were slow to arrive at voters’ homes from overwhelmed clerks, and judges kept changing the deadlines for returning them.
In a tweet Tuesday, Trump complained about “ballot harvesting” — the practice of allowing a campaign or outside group to collect and send in large numbers of ballots, something both parties do.
“IT IS RAMPANT WITH FRAUD. THE USA MUST HAVE VOTER I.D., THE ONLY WAY TO GET AN HONEST COUNT!” he tweeted.
Wisconsin allows for mass collection of ballots. And it requires photo ID for citizens to obtain an absentee ballot and a witness signature on the ballot.
PROCESS DIDN'T TRUMP PREFERENCE
Wisconsin Republicans were long wary of holding the Supreme Court election on the same day as a competitive presidential primary, mindful the high-profile presidential race would drive Democratic voters to the polls.
The results suggest they were right to worry — and the virus didn't change that.
About 900,000 people cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary, compared to only 600,000 voting in the GOP one, where Trump was not challenged.
“What was obvious about yesterday? More Democrats showed up than Republicans. It’s as simple as that,” said longtime Wisconsin Republican strategist Brandon Scholz. “It’s what they wanted all along, holding the (presidential) primary on the same day as the spring election.”
There will be plenty of fighting about voting methods and rules ahead, but in most places it's difficult for those battles to overwhelm the broad dynamics in a race.
THE BATTLE FOR WISCONSIN RAGES ON
The broad dynamic in battleground Wisconsin is trench warfare. Since Trump eked out a win in the state in 2016, Democrats have made the state a symbol and cause unlike any other, organizing well beyond the urban and college town strongholds in hope of taking it back in November.
In 2018, Democrats unseated a Republican governor and re-elected Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in a sweep of statewide offices. But Republicans held onto their majorities in the state Legislature and a year later the conservative candidate won the state Supreme Court race. Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden have been deadlocked in polls there for months and both sides expect it to be close.
Democrats were quick to declare last week's election a strong indicator in their favor.
“The results this morning show that key elements of the Republican coalition are fraying," said David Bergenstein, a spokesman with the Democratic National Committee.
They pointed to Democrats' strong turnout in Republican bastions in suburban Milwaukee and Green Bay, part of the migration of college-educated voters from Trump. Karofsky, the liberal Supreme Court candidate, won 28 counties, more than twice as many as Hillary Clinton did against Trump in 2016.
While Wisconsin’s spring elections are often looked at as barometers for the fall, especially in presidential years, their effectiveness at predicting how voters will react come November is limited. Turnout is usually 50% or more higher in fall elections, making it foolish for Democrats to assume Karofsky's results will directly translate to the fall.
Wisconsin Republicans predicted they'd use the Supreme Court defeat as motivation for November.
“I think a lot of people, the fire is in the belly to work hard for the president and get it done,” said state GOP chairman Andrew Hitt, comparing it to last year’s successful effort to elect a conservative court candidate after Republican Gov. Scott Walker was defeated. “That’s the fire.”
Riccardi reported from Denver.