A year after Wisconsin’s first chaotic pandemic election, lower turnout but smoother process

    The polling place inside Washington High School in Milwaukee. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
    The polling place inside Washington High School in Milwaukee. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

    On Tuesday, Wisconsin held its fifth statewide election since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wisconsinites are choosing their local representation on city councils, school boards and courts — and in the marquee race, a new superintendent of schools. 

    Last year’s spring election took place just weeks after Gov. Tony Evers instituted a statewide stay-at-home order and the administration of the election was marred by fears over the virus, lawsuits and confusion

    Despite the chaos, 1.5 million voters turned out to elect Jill Karofsky to the state Supreme Court and choose Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary. That race was the beginning of the pandemic-caused surge in absentee voting with more than 1.1 million voters choosing to vote by mail. 

    While the superintendent race has had its fair share of controversy and politicking, the 2021 spring election appears to be a much lower turnout election than last year. Before polls opened on Election Day, 278,896 absentee ballots had been returned to municipal clerks across the state, according to Wisconsin Elections Commission data. More than one hundred thousand ballots remained outstanding but voters had until 8 p.m. to return absentee ballots.

    In 2017, the last time the superintendent race was the major statewide election, more than 700,000 voters turned out with now-Gov. Evers handily winning re-election for the top educator slot. That year also saw an uncontested race for Supreme Court. 

    Last year, the fear of a virus that was still largely unknown caused a dramatic drop in available poll workers and polling places. The City of Milwaukee was only able to open five polling places. On Tuesday the city opened 172 polling places. 

    “It’s going much better than the first pandemic election this time a year ago,” Milwaukee Elections Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg says. “We’re still seeing a large preference for mail in voting. There’s just more known about the virus. A lot of our polling places were hesitant last April, once we knew more about the virus, our polling places are a lot more comfortable having us be there.”

    Turnout is up from the extremely low February primary, according to Woodall-Vogg, when less than 7% of registered voters cast a ballot. Throughout the day on Tuesday the city had received more than 20,000 absentee ballots and voters were flowing through their polling places. 

    In smaller municipalities both suburban and rural, clerks say turnout wasn’t great but that voters were steadily trickling in while absentee voting remained popular. 

    “It’s been a pretty quiet election, there’s no lines or anything,” City of Sun Prairie Clerk Elena Hilby says. “It’s probably going to be a relatively low turnout election but we haven’t had any issues or any excitement.” 

    In the Town of Oakland, Clerk Chris Astrella says turnout was boosted by a local referendum to decide if the town should contribute $3.18 million to renovating the Cambridge fire station. He added that there was much less chaos than there was during last year’s spring election. 

    “Things in Oakland are steady, not busy but not slow and have been all day so far,” Astrella says. “This April is much different than last April because last April we didn’t allow any voters in the Town Hall to vote, it was all carhop style in the driveway.”

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.