Five Wisconsin Take-Aways

By Charles Stewart III, MIT

The following is a list of take-aways from the Wisconsin primary. I will be elaborating on these points in the following days, but I wanted to get these down before the day got too far out of hand.

  1. It is possible to rapidly expand vote-by-mail even when you’re not prepared for it, but don’t try this at home. The state 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. And yet, 1.1 million mail ballots were received in time to be counted—a record for any election in the history of Wisconsin.
  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 simple statistical model suggests that Milwaukee County came in 19,000 votes below expected, Green Bay at 10,000 votes below expectations.
  3. The first act of the primary is an amazingly good start, but it doesn’t mean we are out of the woods yet. We do not know yet how many absentee ballots were rejected because they arrived too late, or because of other infirmities.
  4. 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 ballots, and it will be more reliant on election-day registration to be able to vote in the first place. The primary is a good start, but it’s just a start.
  5. Wisconsin’s electoral landscape is shifting. First, 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. Second, the shift in votes that gave rise to the liberal’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.