Thousands vote absentee in Wisconsin recalls
The number of absentee voters underscores yet again the intensity of the races, particularly the struggle between Walker and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
According to the state Government Accountability Board, local election clerks who track absentee voting through a statewide computer system had issued at least 182,000 absentee ballots by mail or in response to in-person requests through midday Friday.
That's less than the almost 231,000 absentee ballots cast during the 2010 gubernatorial race, which saw Walker beat Barrett by about 125,000 votes. However, only a third of Wisconsin clerks use the tracking system, which means the actual number of ballots issued is likely much, much higher.
Thursday was the last day for the general public to request absentee ballots by mail. Military voters and shut-ins had until the end of the day Friday to request ballots by mail. In-person voting at clerks' offices ended Friday.
Election clerks in Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee as well conservative Waukesha had already issued more ballots by midweek than in 2010.
As of the end of the business day Wednesday, Madison had issued about 14,250 ballots compared with about 12,900 total in 2010. Milwaukee had issued more than 15,800, up from 14,000 in 2010. In Waukesha, perhaps the staunchest conservative community in the state, more than 3,700 ballots had been issued as of Wednesday, surpassing the nearly 3,500 issued in 2010.
Clerks in Madison and Milwaukee also took the unusual step of opening on Memorial Day to allow people to cast absentee votes in person. Hundreds of people showed up. The line outside the Milwaukee clerk's office that morning snaked down the hall and around the corner.
Cathy Cunningham, a 50-year-old Milwaukee grocery store worker, chose to stand in line Monday because she plans to bang on doors on Election Day and tell people to vote.
"This is important to me," Cunningham said. "I want to get rid of Walker."
The story was similar in Republican areas, too. Rubina Medina, an assistant city clerk in Waukesha, said the office has been averaging 350 to 375 in-person voters per day.
Deb Radtke, a 59-year-old contract administrator who voted there Thursday, said she wanted to avoid huge lines on Election Day. She voted for Walker, saying recalls should be banned.
"If somebody wins, they win," she said. "If you don't like what they did, vote them out next time. I think (Walker has) done a good job so far. I don't see what Barrett has done for Milwaukee."
Walker enraged Democrats and their supporters last year when he used a Republican majority in the Legislature to pass a plan that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. Walker insisted he had to make the move to balance the state budget; Democrats painted the measure as a calculated attack on organized labor.
Tens of thousands of people descended on the state Capitol in Madison to demonstrate against the measure for three weeks straight and minority Democrats in the state Senate fled to Illinois in an attempt to prevent a vote.
Republicans found a way to pass the bill without them, and Democrats have been looking for payback ever since. They gathered enough signatures this winter to force Walker and four other Republican officeholders into recall elections.
The GAB predicts 60 percent to 65 percent of people old enough to vote will cast ballots in the elections. That's more than the nearly 50 percent who participated in the 2010 election Walker won but less than the 69 percent who turned out in the 2008 presidential election.
Polls show a tight race between Walker and Barrett with few undecided voters. Both sides say the key to winning will be getting their supporters to the polls, and both campaigns have encouraged absentee voting.
Their efforts reflect a growing trend in politics, said Mark Graul, a campaign strategist who spearheaded Republican Mark Green's 2006 bid for governor.
"There is nothing more satisfying to campaigns than to be able to run lists of who voted absentee and see X number of your supporters have already voted," Graul said.
A host of other factors also contributed to absentee voting, including the fear of long lines on Tuesday and old-fashioned scheduling conflicts. The election falls in early June, just as school is letting out and families readjust their schedules for baseball, barbecues and baby sitters.
But Brandon Scholz, a Madison lobbyist who has worked on a number of GOP congressional campaigns across the country, cautioned against trying to predict the election's outcome based on absentee voting's popularity.
"It's to be expected. The intensity and exposure of this recall locally, statewide and nationally is going to push things like that," he said. "It's indicative of high interest on both sides. So call that a wash."
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.