With highly competitive and publicized races appearing up and down the ballot Tuesday, state and local officials are anticipating what could be a surge of voters.
Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson is predicting nearly 55 percent of eligible voters to turn out—more than 10 percentage points higher than the 2010 midterms. It’s also more than the 2014 midterms, which had 48.6 percent turnout. Tollefson said there are about 121,000 eligible voters in Rock County.
Beloit City Clerk-Treasurer Lori Stottler is predicting just under 40 percent turnout. That’s a bump from 2014 and 2010, when 34 percent and 31 percent voted, respectively. The city of Beloit has 27,045 eligible voters, Stottler said.
In Janesville, city Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek is predicting 55 percent turnout—up from about 53 percent in 2014 and about 48 percent in 2010. Janesville has about 44,412 eligible voters, Godek said.
“I do think that there’s a lot of interest in this election. My expectation is that we’re going to have pretty heavy turnout,” Godek said. “Folks are engaged in the process right now, and they want to vote.”
One of the centerpiece themes this election season has been absentee voting. Absentee voting, also called early voting, is when a voter casts a ballot either by mail or in person before Election Day. The last day to absentee vote in Rock County was Friday, and mail-in ballots must arrive no later than 8 p.m. Tuesday.
In Rock County and across the state, the number of absentee ballots cast this year has skyrocketed from previous midterms.
Tollefeson said municipal clerks in Rock County had issued more than 10,000 absentee ballots by Thursday. In Janesville, Godek said 5,860 ballots had been cast by the end of the day Thursday. That is compared to 3,566 cast at the same point in 2014 and 2,419 in 2010.
In Beloit, Stottler said more than 1,400 absentee ballots likely will be cast. That’s a jump from 2010 and 2014, when 783 and 845 absentee ballots were cast, respectively. It’s lower than the past two presidential elections, when 3,045 were cast in 2012 and 2,581 were cast in 2016.
The rise of local absentee ballots mirrors a trend across the state. On Thursday, 420,015 absentee ballots had been cast statewide—about 46,000 more than all the absentee ballots cast in 2014 and about 43,000 shy of those cast at the same point in 2016.
“Absentee voting is definitely stronger now than it was in 2014,” said Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission. “What we don’t know is whether or not this affects the total number of ballots. Are we trading activity on Election Day? … Is it roughly the same poll of people that are behaving differently, or does it mean more people are coming out to vote in total?”
Barry Burden, a political scientist at UW-Madison, said Wisconsin has some of the highest midterm voter turnout rates in the country. In 2014, 57 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, which was the second-highest percentage in the country, he said. That could indicate “a kind of ceiling that might limit how much higher turnout could go,” he said.
Alternatively, Burden pointed to a Marquette University Law School Poll indicating that 70 percent of respondents are “very” enthusiastic about voting this year, while 19 percent are “somewhat enthusiastic.” That is compared to 67 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in an October 2014 poll, Burden said.
“The extremely competitive governor’s race is (a) main factor that will boost voter turnout,” Burden said. “It has gotten a lot of attention. ... They are talking about issues such as health insurance and education funding that affect Wisconsinites’ daily lives. The more competitive nature of the governor’s race compared to 2014 and 2010 should help keep turnout high.”
Matt Rothschild, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said he is anticipating a spike in voter turnout Tuesday largely because the election will serve as a referendum on President Donald Trump, who is this year’s “X-factor.”
“Usually, people don’t go (vote) to celebrate something ... but to protest something they hate,” he said. “A lot of people on the progressive side are certainly sick and tired of getting kicked in the teeth by the same boot. A lot of people ... are eager to cast a vote against Donald Trump, and this is their opportunity to do that.”
In preparation for Tuesday, clerks have led training sessions for poll workers, collected absentee ballots—which are stored in individual envelopes and secured at clerks’ offices until they’re counted on Election Day—and prepped voters for new registration rules.
Stottler and Godek said they are not beefing up their polling staff but are largely keeping in step with typical midterm and presidential Election Day protocols, despite potentially higher voter turnout.
Stottler said she assigns workers based on the number of polling booths, not the number of anticipated voters.
“The work is the same whether one voter shows up or 10,000 show up,” she said.
Godek said more voters at the polls on Election Day likely will not slow down the voting process, but same-day registration could.
If a line of voters at a polling location slows, it likely will be because of a high number of same-day registrations. If that happens, Godek said, poll workers would be shifted from slower polling locations to accommodate the surge in registration.
“Basically what I’m hoping for with a busy Election Day is … somebody being out of the polling place in 15 minutes,” Godek said. “That’s a successful vote.”