Takeaways from the August primary, as Wisconsin gets ready for the November election

    Signs from a pandemic election including health alert at the polls
    arning signs from a pandemic election polling location

    Wisconsin held its Aug. 11 primary as COVID-19 continues to spread across the state and with just 84 days to go until the Nov. 3 presidential election. 

    Though the fall partisan primary was not afflicted by last-minute rule changes by the courts or long lines at the polls, the challenges of voting in a pandemic persisted as voters selected the fall candidates for the state’s legislative and congressional races. 

    A large portion of ballots were cast absentee, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission — but the percentage of absentee ballots returned was much lower than in April. 

    On Tuesday, 593,774 ballots were returned out of the 907,422 ballots requested, a 65% return rate. In April, 1.1 million of the 1.3 million requested ballots were returned, a return rate of 92%. 

    But the August and April elections were different in many ways. In April, the deadline for ballots to be received by local clerks was extended past election day, so long as they were mailed by election day. In August, all ballots had to be received by the time polls closed. 

    Officials said the low rate of return this week wasn’t unexpected. Fall primaries historically don’t have massive turnout and it’s likely that people who requested absentee ballots for the whole year decided not to mail in their August ballot — especially in districts that didn’t have very many races on the ballot. 

    “What I can tell you is that because there were no statewide races on the ballot Tuesday, it is very likely that a significant number of voters were simply not interested in returning their absentee ballots for the partisan primary,” said WEC spokesperson Reid Magney. “Some places had hot legislative primaries, but there was no widespread campaign advertising for Tuesday on TV, radio or online, which can drive higher voter turnout.”

    Scott McDonell, the Dane County clerk, says overall turnout in the county was high, but while downtown Madison had hotly contested legislative primaries, other parts of the county barely had anything on the ballot. 

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    The more concerning problem, says McDonell, is a lack of poll workers. Gov. Tony Evers had to call in the National Guard for the second time this year to serve as poll workers because of a shortage caused by the pandemic. 

    In the weeks before the election, local clerks said 900 poll workers were needed statewide. Heading into the presidential election, with much higher absentee and in-person turnout, that problem could get exponentially worse. 

    “Looking forward, again we had to rely on the National Guard to fill in for poll workers and we’ll need a lot more poll workers for November,” McDonell says. “If you’re processing absentee ballots that’s time consuming. If you have to stop and deal with people coming in that pushes processing absentees until polls close. If you up the numbers of in-person and absentee, it’s not a linear line, it’s like traffic on the Beltline, it could get a lot worse quicker.”

    McDonell says “a lot was learned” in the April election regarding keeping in-person voters safe and he didn’t hear of any major problems with the postal service. Moving into the fall, he says clerks benefit from a longer period of time to mail out ballots, which will begin to be sent by the second week of September. 

    Each area of the state will have its own local issues to overcome. Especially as Wisconsin shapes up to be a key battleground in the presidential election. 

    “We’re going to need to recruit poll workers countywide. That will be our problem,” he says. “Milwaukee wasn’t done until 3 a.m., imagine what that’s going to be like in November. We’re only as strong as our weakest link, especially if we’re the state.”

    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.