MADISON — Voters in Wisconsin’s Democratic leaning counties have been more likely to register to vote the same day they cast their ballots, but Republican areas also saw heavy use of the state’s last-minute registration law, state election records show.
One in eight ballots — almost a million votes in all — came from voters who registered just before voting in three recent statewide elections, according to the data from the Government Accountability Board.
Wisconsin doesn’t require declaration of a party preference, so the records don’t reveal which party’s supporters most often sign up to vote at the last minute, but some patterns are clear. And the numbers — from elections in November 2008, November 2010 and the June 2012 gubernatorial recall — indicate the practice of same-day registration is widespread and sometimes unpredictable:
• Nearly two-thirds of election day registrations were in counties where a majority voted for Democratic candidates in the three elections.
• Populous and reliably Democratic counties of Dane and Milwaukee had rates of election day registration above the state average, recording nearly one-third of the state total in the three elections, about 318,000 voters. Republican stronghold Waukesha County was below average with just 6 percent of the total for the 72 counties, about 58,000 voters.
• The highest rates of election day registration from the three elections were in two rural, solidly GOP counties — Grant and Washburn — where about one in four voters registered at the polls in the 2010 election won by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, more than twice the 10.5 percent statewide rate.
• The lowest rate in each of the three elections was in rural Iron County, which voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 and for Walker in the other two elections.
• The statewide rate was 16 percent of voters in Democratic-leaning counties registering on the day of the presidential election in 2008, when Obama easily won Wisconsin. In GOP-leaning areas, however, it was just 2.6 percentage points lower. Two years later when Republican Walker won, the same-day registration rate was 5.9 percentage points higher for Democratic areas.
The data demonstrate at least a loose connection between same-day registration and heavier Democratic voting, said Barry Burden, a UW-Madison professor who studies Wisconsin elections.
“Democratic voters are generally younger, more urban, and more mobile, thus putting them in categories that necessitate more frequent (address) changes to keep their registration up to date,” Burden said. “It makes sense that Republican counties are those with more stable populations, and thus have less need for EDR (election day registration).”
Last week, Wisconsin Republicans were edging away from their desire to repeal the 1975 law allowing same-day registration after a GAB report estimated the change would cost taxpayers at least $5 million to implement and about $1 million annually after that because of federal mandates. With the same-day registration law in effect, the mandates don’t apply.
Democrats warned that the GOP hasn’t ruled out another attempt to repeal the law, which they said would reduce voter turnout, especially in traditional Democratic strongholds such as college campuses and low-income areas.
Allowed in eight states
Wisconsin is one of eight states that allow registration on election day, and the practice is cited as a reason for the state’s high voter turnout.
People must register when they come of voting age, when they change their address or name, or after the state voids their registration because they haven’t voted for four years.
Address changes may be the largest single reason for election day registrations, according to GAB data.
While registration can be handled by mail, the state enacted same-day registration to make it easier for voters whose work schedules make it extremely hard to visit clerks offices during working hours and for people without reliable transportation.
The popularity of the law has remained relatively steady in general elections since 1984, ranging from a rate of 6.5 percent of all voters in 2002 to nearly 20 percent in 2006, when 1,500 small towns were required for the first time to register voters.
Walker recently breathed new life into talk about repealing the law, but he accompanied his college-age son to a Wauwatosa polling place to register and vote on the day of the GOP Senate primary in August. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie registered at an East Side Madison polling place on the day of this year’s presidential election, said city clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl. Werwie said he needed to register because of a change of address.
Geoff Zahn, 19, of Madison, registered Nov. 6 when he arrived at his West Side polling place and found out he wasn’t listed.
“I like how you get to register on voting day,” said Zahn, an MATC computer science student who works 30 hours a week at a shoe store. He said he is an independent voter who picks Libertarian candidates when the major parties haven’t fielded someone he likes.
Another West Side resident, 66-year-old Donald York, said he voted for the first time on Nov. 6. The retired car repair estimator said he wanted to see Obama win a second term. York said he never thought elections were important until he started thinking about what the future will look like for his seven grandchildren. York said he wasn’t entirely sure he would vote until Election Day.
“I guess you could say the spirit moved me,” he said. “It was kind of at the prodding of my wife. She votes every year.”
Without same-day registration, many people would register earlier, but research shows that participation in elections would decline, said Ken Mayer, a UW-Madison political science professor who specializes in election administration.
Republicans have made several unsuccessful attempts to repeal the state law, saying that it burdened election clerks and increased the risk of voter fraud — although clerks support the law and investigations have found no significant fraud problems.
Tanya Parlow Stewart, who has been the city clerk in Jefferson since 1996, said she sets up a separate area in polling places for registration so it doesn’t slow others who are ready to vote.
“We’ve learned how to work with the current laws and we’ve got a pretty streamlined process,” Stewart said. “At any given time we might have 20 to 30 people sitting down to register, and none at other times.”
Incoming state Sen. Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said the registration patterns revealed in the state data buttress his belief that greater access to voting helps Democratic Party candidates.
“When more people vote, elections go toward Democrats,” Larson said. “When less people vote it goes toward Republicans.”
Incoming leaders of the Republican majority in the Legislature — Senate Majority Leader-elect Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, and Assembly Speaker-elect Robin Vos of Rochester — didn’t respond to telephone and email requests for comment.
Walker, who revived the issue in a speech last month, said on Wednesday he wouldn’t sign a repeal bill because of the estimated $5 million cost. Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, who is considering drafting a bill to eliminate same-day registration, also said the cost gave him “pause.” Democrats noted that the bill could be enacted without his signature, and Walker has not promised a veto.