Recall election: Expected turnout for primary remains a mystery

2011-07-09T00:00:00Z 2011-07-09T08:17:39Z Recall election: Expected turnout for primary remains a mysteryBy Chris Hubbuch La Crosse Tribune

Absentee balloting at some polls in Wisconsin's 32nd Senate District has exceeded rates in the April election prompting local officials to predict a high turnout in Tuesday's recall primary between Democrat Jennifer Shilling and "protest" candidate James Smith.

But political scientists caution that may not be an accurate indicator in an unprecedented summertime election in which one candidate is openly crossing party lines.

Under the state's new voter ID law, Friday was the last day for in-person absentee voting or to request a ballot by mail. Mailed ballots can be returned to the clerk's office or at polls until voting ends on Tuesday.

La Crosse County Clerk Ginny Dankmeyer expects turnout will be at least 30 percent and could approach the 40 percent mark hit in the spring Supreme Court race.

In Onalaska, absentee requests are more than 50 percent higher than they were in April or in the May 3 special election for the 94th Assembly District representative.

Local turnout exceeded 40 percent in each of those elections, and city clerk Cari Burmaster expects it will be at least that high on Tuesday.

As of Friday morning, the city of La Crosse had issued 1,319 absentee ballots, nearly 18 percent more than in the April 5 election. But clerk Terri Lehrke is hesitant to predict turnout.

"We don't have a comparable election here," she said. "What's normal? There is no normal."

Clerks in Crawford and Vernon counties don't expect particularly high turnout Tuesday, though absentee ballot requests in Prairie du Chien are up nearly 50 percent from the April election.

Demand for absentee ballots doesn't always predict turnout, said Dennis Dresang, director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW-Madison. Case in point: November's gubernatorial election.

The demand for absentee ballots could simply be a product of summer vacations, said UW-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim.

"I don't think the absentee ballots is an indication of 40 percent turnout," he said. "If they get 20 percent that would be pretty amazing."

Shilling, a five-term Democratic state representative from La Crosse, is challenging Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, in a recall election brought about by anger over his vote for a bill to curtail collective bargaining rights for public workers.

Smith, a former officer of the La Crosse County GOP, is running as a Democrat as part of a Republican strategy to force primaries and delay recall elections until August. Smith says he will stay on the ballot against Kapanke if he wins, though his campaign has so far been "word of mouth."

Heim said Democrats have a strong incentive to get voters out since there is no Republican primary.

"If it was close against a fake candidate that would be embarrassing," Heim said. "It's not out of the question that it could be a surprise. People can cross over. Republicans have only one reason to vote in this primary - for Smith."

While there is a history of crossover voting in Wisconsin elections, it has never been a factor in deciding an election, Dresang said.

"There are crossover votes you can identify through exit polls but they're not numerous enough to play that spoiler role."

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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