High Voter Turnout in Wisconsin


 Joe Murray  |    July 06, 2015
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In the 2014 midterm elections, Wisconsin had the second-highest voter turnout in the country at 56.8 percent. In the 2012 presidential election, the Badger State ranked second as well with a statewide turnout of 73.2 percent. Election enthusiasm and high voter turnout isn’t a recent trend in Wisconsin. Civic participation and election-year engagement has a long tradition in Wisconsin elections.

That’s not the case with most other states. In those same 2014 midterms, only eight states achieved 50 percent turnout or greater status, 18 states ranked somewhere in the 40 percent category, and 20 states placed in the 30s. The lowest voter turnout, in the 20 percent category, took place in an interesting mix of medium and large states: Indiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, Tennessee and Texas. Wisconsin voters make it a priority to show up on election day.

So why does Wisconsin generate the kind of voter turnout that most other states can only hope for? According to election statistics compiled by Nonprofit VOTE in its “America Goes to the Polls 2014” report, several political factors contribute to this enthusiasm:

  • States with competitive statewide races at the top of the ticket.
  • States with election day registration (EDR).
  • Early in-person voting and by mail.

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Competitive statewide elections

Wisconsin is considered a “swing state” in both presidential and midterm elections. The best and most recent example of our “purple state” status might be the two hard-fought elections in 2012. Gov. Scott Walker prevailed in the June 5, 2012, recall election with 53 percent of the vote. In November 2012, voters easily helped re-elect President Obama with 53 percent of the vote. Walker’s recall turnout set a non-presidential election record at 57.8 percent voter turnout, and the 2012 presidential turnout reached an incredible 73.2 percent. Both Walker and Obama spent a lot of money and time building an organization that would drive their voters to the polls in numbers much higher than most other states, especially in presidential election cycles. 

Election day registration

Wisconsin is one of the 13 states to offer Election Day Registration (EDR). Numbers from the Nonprofit VOTE report show that states with EDR “far outpaced states that don’t allow voters to register or fix a registration problem on Election Day.”

A 2013 report from the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB) makes it crystal clear how EDR drives up voter turnout in the Badger State: “In Wisconsin, the results from recent Fall General Elections have shown that on average 10–15 percent of all voters who cast ballots utilized EDR. With the high turnout at the 2008 Presidential and General Election, 459,549 Wisconsin voters, or 15.3 percent of all voters, registered or updated their voter registration at the polls on Election Day. For the June 5, 2012 Statewide Recall Election, 266,974 voters used EDR, which represented 10.6 percent of the electorate. Subject to further review of voter data, the preliminary estimate of voters who used EDR for the 2012 Presidential and General Election is 388,157, or approximately 11 percent of the electorate.” EDR in Wisconsin started in 1976. According to Nonprofit VOTE, states with EDR had average turnout at 12 points higher than states without EDR. 

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Early in-person voting and by mail

Early voting in Wisconsin, sometimes referred to as “convenience voting,” begins two weeks before an election and ends at 5:00 p.m. or the close of business, whichever is later, on the Friday before the election day. Wisconsin is one of 34 states that allows early voting with no specific requirements as to who can vote early.

According to Kevin Kennedy of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB), nearly 22 percent of the Wisconsin electorate voted early in 2008, and the number is rising. Nationally, early voting is rapidly growing in popularity. Twenty-nine percent of eligible voters cast their ballot early in 2014, up four points over 2010.

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Wisconsin in 2016

In 2016, Wisconsin voters are likely to go to the polls in record numbers. Assuming Wisconsin remains a “swing state” target for both Democrats and Republicans, voters will have two high-profile races at the top of the ticket for president and U.S. Senate, and multiple competitive races for the state legislature as well. Unless something happens to diminish the enthusiasm of Wisconsin voters, Wisconsin’s ranking is expected to be at or near the top in 2016.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

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