Through a series of articles we call The State, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Advocacy and Political Affairs team is providing analysis related to "the state of" various aspects of the 2020 campaign season, including the race for the White House and key elections around the country.
Like all the priorities now being viewed through the lens of the coronavirus pandemic, how Americans vote in the middle of a public health crisis will be hotly debated through the November general election. Wisconsin’s recent presidential primary and elections for local offices could be an indication of how voters will prefer to cast a ballot come November.
The Democratic presidential results were mostly preordained with Joe Biden expected to win big, which he did by 64% to Bernie Sanders’ 31%. But contested elections for local offices, as well as a state Supreme Court seat, were also being conducted, making it an important day for Wisconsinites. However, the ease with which most Americans vote was made a lot more difficult by the coronavirus.
A fight between the Democratic governor, Republican-controlled legislature, and the courts likely resulted in a bit of whiplash by anyone following, with the election being scheduled, postponed and reinstated. A lack of poll workers, fearing for their health, caused many polling locations to be closed. The city of Milwaukee, the largest in the state, normally has 180 polling centers, but had just five open on election day. This resulted in hours-long wait times for those voting in person.
For those Wisconsinites who decided to vote by mail, the process was not necessarily cleaner. Well over 1 million absentee ballots were returned, accounting for 80% of the total vote. This is a historic number for Wisconsin, where only 10% of all the ballots in the 2016 presidential primary were absentee ballots. However, the Wisconsin Elections Commission reports that nearly 200,000 absentee ballots were not returned, with many complaints of ballots not being delivered to voters on time and confusion about when ballots needed to be postmarked to be counted.
Turnout was roughly 14% lower than the 2016 presidential primary, with about 35% of eligible voters casting a ballot. It is hard to determine if the coronavirus alone was the biggest factor in driving down turnout. The winding down of the Democratic primary could have made an impact, as well as the fact that the Republican primary was uncontested.
While several factors could account for turnout in Wisconsin, it is clear that voters are engaging more than ever before because of the new digital means candidates are using to connect with them. An April presidential poll from Monmouth University, well into the realities of the coronavirus, showed that 82% of respondents were “certain to vote.”
The challenge for states over the coming months will be determining how to conduct their elections in a way that will ensure all who want to vote are able to do so. Even given the difficulties presented by the coronavirus, voters still appear highly engaged and prepared to vote come November and whatever difficult realties still exist.
Edited on April 22 to add: According to the NYT, two weeks after Wisconsin’s State Legislature forced the state to hold in-person elections, Milwaukee health officials said that six people who voted in the elections and one poll worker had tested positive for the virus, seeming to validate the warnings of state public health officials who had said that in-person voting in the April 7 elections could put lives at risk. Wisconsin is set to hold yet another in-person vote in 20 counties, a May 12 special election to fill a House seat from the part of the state known as Up North.
Mike Sistak is director of grassroots program development at the American Farm Bureau Federation.