A Sleepless Night: Milwaukee sees massive voter participation in 2020 election
After shattering early voting records, Wisconsin voters from the rural north to the urban southeast came out in force on an unusually warm Election Day, even as coronavirus cases reached new heights and political tensions ran high in the battleground state.
Given the high number of absentee ballots, which take longer to process, vote counting extended into Wednesday, November 4. Just over 3 million votes were cast in 2016, and Wisconsin was on pace to exceed that turnout, with more than 1.9 million cast early.
“If unofficial results aren’t available until morning, it does not mean something went wrong,” Wisconsin’s top elections official, Meagan Wolfe, cautioned. “It just means that election officials are doing their jobs.”
There were no reports of widespread problems before polls closed. More than 2,400 polls opened as planned statewide, with only a small number of shortages in workers. Members of the Wisconsin National Guard, dressed in civilian clothes, helped fill about 220 gaps statewide, a fraction of the roughly 30,000 people working the polls.
Behind the scenes, work started as polls opened at 7:00 a.m. to count the more than 1.9 million absentee ballots that arrived before Election Day. Milwaukee offered a live video stream of its efforts to process ballots in that Democratic stronghold.
“The day started out smoothly, and it is continuing to run smoothly,” said Mayor Tom Barrett at an afternoon press conference.
The campaigns of both President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden closely watched absentee and in-person voting for any irregularities that could make a difference. Elections officials urged patience.
Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes four years ago. Biden sought to put the state back in the Democratic column, where it was for a generation before 2016. In the week leading up to the election, both Biden and Trump campaigned in parts of Wisconsin where their base is strong. Polls showed there were few undecided voters, making turning out the vote all the more vital for both sides.
The coronavirus pandemic motivated over 1.9 million voters to mail in their ballots or vote in person before Election Day, far surpassing the early voting turnout in previous presidential elections. Wisconsin had 3.68 million registered voters as of November 1, but under Wisconsin law anyone who is not registered can do so on Election Day.
“In a large-turnout election, there’s always going to be some lines, but it seems like there’s fewer than I can remember in previous elections,” Wolfe said. “I’m sure that’s partially because there are fewer voters that are left to participate today because there are so many who participated by absentee.”
A long line formed at a polling place in West Allis, not far from a field hospital set up to handle overflow coronavirus patients. But that congestion was attributed to the consolidation of polling places in that Milwaukee suburb.
Wolfe said some polling places had longer lines due to social distancing. Voters were being asked to keep a 6-foot distance between one another due to the pandemic. Wisconsin has seen a steady rise in virus cases since September, and on Election Day set a new record high with 5,771 new cases and 52 more deaths.