Local municipalities are reporting high demand for absentee ballots — and heavy traffic from voters casting their ballots in advance of Wisconsin’s June 5 gubernatorial recall election.
More than 90,000 absentee ballots had been issued as of Wednesday, according to state election officials using a voter registration system that tracks absentee ballots in about a third of the state’s municipalities. There were 68,000 absentee votes cast in this month’s recall primary and 230,000 in the 2010 gubernatorial election, according to the Associated Press.
Wednesday’s numbers confirm anecdotal reports from municipal clerks, but it’s unclear whether they foreshadow higher than normal interest in the election or simply reflect new tactics both parties are deploying to ensure turnout.
“Typically in the past absentee voting was a good indicator of turnout,” said University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim. “I think it’s less accurate today than it used to be because the effort to use this more.”
Democrats are promoting early voting with events across the state such as one in La Crosse on Wednesday that brought about a dozen people to the polls.
Debbie Haggerty sported an “I voted early” button even before casting her ballot. A recent UW-L graduate working as a nurse’s aide, Haggerty collected recall petition signatures on campus and has helped with the get-out-the-vote effort.
Ted Glotfelty didn’t have time to vote Wednesday but joined about 35 people at the noon rally in Riverside Park to show support for Barrett. The independent contractor said he felt Republican Gov. Scott Walker divided the state unnecessarily with his attack on collective bargaining.
Glotfelty said he lost out on about $50,000 worth of work when two public employees canceled or scaled back home improvement projects after having their pay cut.
Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the state Democratic Party, said the early voting drive is part of a wider get-out-the-vote effort, which both parties agree will determine if Walker continues his term or if challenger Tom Barrett will pull off the victory he couldn’t in 2010.
“Republicans who support Scott Walker are very good voters. They’ll go if it’s snowing sideways, if its raining,” Zielinski said. “Our voters … are very passionate, but they don’t have a regular voting pattern. We need to expand the opportunities for them to vote.”
Though Walker has raised far more money, Zielinski said Democrats have a superior ground game, thanks in part to a database built from the million names collected on the recall petitions, which also netted the party about 30,000 active volunteers who will be used to get others to the polls.
“A lot of the people doing the voting now are these ‘supervolunteers,’” Zielinksi said. “We want them to be out there election day knocking on doors.”
Karri Kline is one such volunteer. The vice chairwoman of the county party, she voted absentee for the first time Wednesday to be part of a “first wave” of voters.
“There’s an energy we need to get launched,” she said.
Republicans have also deployed a voter turnout plan that includes an “aggressive absentee ballot program,” said Ben Sparks, spokesman for the state Republican Party.
“Turnout is going to be our sole focus for these final two weeks,” he said.
Sparks said the party has made more than two million calls to voters, plus another 200,000 last Saturday, part of the largest grass roots effort ever deployed by the GOP in Wisconsin.
Voters who prefer to vote absentee are sent applications, though Sparks declined to say how many.
Heim said early voting drives have become the norm – a way to guarantee supporters get to the polls.
Area clerks have seen it first hand.
La Crosse County Clerk Ginny Dankmeyer said several clerks have asked for additional ballots. She’s also had voters show up looking for absentee ballots, usually an indication it’s their first time voting absentee, since ballots are obtained from municipal clerks.
Dankmeyer predicts turnout could top 60 percent, a sentiment echoed by other Coulee Region officials.
In the city of La Crosse there were 334 votes cast during the first three days of in-person absentee voting and more than 1,000 ballots issued by mail, said city clerk Teri Lehrke. The city counted 2,042 absentee ballots in last summer’s Senate recall election, for about 13 percent of the total vote.
Onalaska, which had the highest local percentage of absentee voting in the August recall, is on pace to issue even more absentee ballots this time, said city clerk Cari Burmaster.
Cathy Onsager, clerk for the town of Shelby, said absentee voting will probably exceed the level in last summer’s recall, but she’s noticed one difference.
“People came in angry last time. Now they’re just coming in to vote,” she said. “They don’t seem to be all wound up.”