As Wisconsin holds historic recall elections on June 5, the state can expect upward of 2.5 million voters to flock to polling places, possibly facing long lines, frenzied get-out-the-vote efforts, accusations of unfair practices or political foul play, and a long night awaiting the count—especially if it is as close as polls suggest.
The special election comes after a weekend of brilliant early summer weather—a field organizer’s dream—propelling pro-recall efforts to contact voters as the vote becomes a battle between the grassroots and an incumbent’s big-money political machine.
Pre-election polls have shown the race has tightened in recent days, leaving Democrat Tom Barrett, Milwaukee’s mayor, within the margin of error, though trailing by a point or two. Tuesday is forecast to be warm and clear, which will only increase voter turnout.
“The thing that I am hearing again and again is that nobody knows what will happen,” said Sam Mayfield, a documentary filmmaker in Madison who has been covering the protests. She said the anti-Walker side was out in force Monday. “That is 100 percent where the energy is; in door-knocking and phone banks.”
Other Wisconsin-based political observers, such as PR Watch’s Brendan Fischer, said Republicans in Wisconsin tend to be a more reliable voting base than Democrats—which means the wild card for Tuesday is whether the state’s unions, progressives, students and national groups turn out voters who have stayed home in recent elections.
“Republican turnout is highly reliable,” he said. “Democrats win when they turn out.”
What follows are three issues to watch as the state votes on whether to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four state legislators.
1. Very High Voter Turnout
The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, which oversees the state’s elections, projects that the recall turnout will be between 60 to 65 percent of the voting age population, which is 2.6 to 2.8 million people. More than 200,000 people will vote using an absentee ballot, the board said Monday. These projections are almost as high as a November presidential election and far higher than the state’s record for a gubernatorial election.
Even with the good weather, the ability of the state’s nearly 1,900 electoral jurisdictions to handle voter traffic will be tested on Tuesday. It is an open question whether there will be long lines and delays in accommodating voters, particularly in urban areas where historic voter turnout patterns are lower than the surrounding suburbs.
Election officials tend to deploy voting machines and make poll worker assignments based on previous elections. But in Milwaukee, groups such as the League of Young Voters have done extensive work building new lists and say many people—particularly African Americans—will be voting. “We are running canvassers 9 to 9,” said spokesman Sam Patton. “We are getting overall a very positive response, in terms of the communities we are hitting that say that they will turn out.”
Jayme Montgomery-Baker, the League’s Wisconsin field director, is hopeful that these efforts will turn out thousands more African-American voters than was seen in the 2010 midterm elections, when communities of color, young people and women tended not to vote. “We are excited as an organization embarking on a new frontier,” she said. “We are a Black organization, run by Black young people. The oldest on our staff is 30.”
Some recent polls have under-sampled African-American voters, the League said Monday, citing a poll last week by Marquette Law School that assumed the state electorate is 85 percent white. Montgomery-Baker said that she expects 14,000 or more African-Americans they contacted to vote on Tuesday.
2. Will Voting Barriers Surface?
Wisconsin is a state known for clean and open elections. But even so, recent changes in voting rules—pushed by the state’s Republican legislative majority—could create some confusion on Tuesday. A federal judge recently suspended a tough new voter ID law, although that may not stop some poll workers, or partisan observers, from asking voters to present ID not required by law.
Similarly, that same legislation contained a provision that might impact student voters. Wisconsin has same-day voter registration, but the new ID law said that you must be a resident for 28 days in the jurisdiction where you are voting. Thus, some students who have moved out of dorms or back in with their parents may expect to vote but not get a regular ballot. Instead, they would likely be given a provisional ballot, which would have to be verified before being counted.
More insidious, however, would be partisan voter challengers. For decades, right-wingers have tried to discourage perceived opponents from voting by challenging their credentials at polling places. Two out-of-state voter vigilante groups from Texas have said they will be training members in so-called “ballot integrity” tactics and deploying them to locations across the state. Whether this amounts to little more than fanciful posturing by political tourists remains to be seen, although top Republican Party officials—who come from Wisconsin—have been raising the “voter fraud” canard as polls have tightened.
On the other hand, lawyers from the state attorney general office—run by a partisan Republican, J.B. Van Hollen—say they will be looking for voter fraud—or people who are ineligible to vote casting ballots. That’s somewhat harder to do in Wisconsin because the state allows any eligible voter to register at the polls and vote on Election Day. Also the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice will have monitors looking for signs of voter intimidation, which should lessen the potential for trouble.
3. A Very Long Night Counting Ballots
Both sides will be lucky if a clear winner can be determined on Tuesday night.
Wisconsin has one of the most complicated electoral landscapes of any state. It will be counting an estimated 200,000 or more absentee ballots before the final vote is certified. Although that counting begins Tuesday, it is not clear when it will finish, especially if the race is as tight as many polls are suggesting.
Moreover, just when the state’s residents may think the recall questions are settled, they may be contested in a recount. The state will pay for a recount if the spread between the two candidate is less than one-half of 1 percentage point—for example, 12,500 votes out of 2.5 million cast. However, any candidate can request and pay for a recount if they want. With Gov. Scott Walker raising more than $30 million for his campaign effort, it would not be surprising if he chose to continue this fight before the state’s Government Accountability Board, if not the courts, should the race come down to several thousand voters.