The following was a comment posted in response to our editorial, “Delay the Election Now.” We thank Dean Knudson, the chairman of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, for his thoughtful response.
Some have questioned why ten other states postponed their presidential primary but Wisconsin is going forward. Our election Tuesday is about more than helping choose the presidential nominees. We have over 3900 state, county, school and municipal elections on Tuesday. It is critically important in our system of representative democracy that citizens have the right to choose their representatives, especially during a crisis.
In 1814, during the War of 1812, the British army invaded Washington, DC forcing President Madison and his government to evacuate as the British sacked and burned the city including the White House. Elections continued across the United States.
During the Civil War elections continued. During the 1918 Influenza pandemic elections continued relatively normally. It makes sense for Wisconsin encourage voting by absentee ballot to reduce the numbers at the polls on Tuesday. It is extremely important to maintain continuity of government, and to maintain normal transition of representative leadership, during times of fear or controversy.
As of today requests for absentee ballots are still being processed but nearly 1.3M ballots have been sent out. A reasonable estimate of voter participation for a spring election without a close presidential primary would be 1.5M. Turnout in 2016 was an all-time record at 2.1M but that included two very tight presidential primary races. In 2012 turnout was 1.1M voters without a presidential primary in doubt. The Tuesday in-person turnout is difficult to predict but if turnout at the polling places was 20% of the total we might see over 1.6M votes cast.
This is a phenomenal response and adjustment to the pandemic. To switch our election from 80% in-person to 80% by mail in just a few weeks demonstrates the flexible and adaptable nature of Wisconsin’s voting laws. It shows how a “can do” attitude by our citizens can overcome huge challenges.
Don’t expect to see huge in-person turnout on Tuesday because most active spring voters already have an absentee ballot. The City of Milwaukee is projecting total in-person turnout of about 20,000 on Tuesday. With 5 polling places each with 40 voting booths that comes to one booth for every 100 voters or 8 voters in each booth per hour.
In Waukesha County, voter participation in spring elections can be expected to be between a low of 95,000 like in 2012, to a high of 175,000 as seen in 2016. So average turnout might be around 135,000 votes. As of this morning 127,000 voters in Waukesha County have requested absentee ballots. If just 8,000 voters go to the polls in Waukesha County Tuesday it would bring the total to an average spring turnout, yet represent a small fraction of the typical in-person voting.
Everything is in place for our elections to go forward. Don’t let fear and panic derail our democracy. Instead let’s pull together to help ensure we minimize health risks in polling places while protecting the integrity of our elections.
Chairman, Wisconsin Elections Commission