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What The Heck Is Going On With Wisconsin’s Primary?

UPDATE (April 6, 2020, 7:32 p.m.): On Monday, Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order attempting to postpone in-person voting for Wisconsin’s April 7 election to June 9; however, Republican legislators successfully challenged the order in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. So as of Monday evening, Wisconsin will be going to the polls on Tuesday.

However, in a separate court case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled late on Monday that all absentee ballots must be postmarked by April 7, overturning an earlier ruling by a federal judge that said ballots would count as long as they were received by April 13.

The fight song of the University of Wisconsin is “On, Wisconsin!” — and, for better or for worse, the state is certainly heeding that call this week. Even though 16 presidential primaries have now been postponed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin is forging ahead with Tuesday’s election as scheduled. In fact, Wisconsin will likely be the only state to host an in-person presidential primary in the entire month of April.

So why didn’t Wisconsin reschedule? Well, it was harder for Wisconsin than other states because it is also holding general elections for several local offices — judges, mayors, county executives — including some whose terms begin on April 20 (so the election had to take place before then). In addition, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers probably did not have the power to alter the election without the consent of the Republican legislature, and that was always unlikely given the bad blood between the two.

In fact, not only did Evers and the legislature not change the date of the election, but they have also been unable to agree on any statutory changes to the state’s election procedures in the face of restrictions on gatherings because of the coronavirus. For instance, on March 27, Evers called for the state to mail a ballot to every registered voter, but legislators (and election officials) immediately shot down his proposal as logistically infeasible. And late last week, Evers attempted to call a special session of the legislature to delay the election, but legislative leaders declined to take up his proposal, saying the election should continue as planned.

As a result, the administration of Tuesday’s election could be a disaster, as the state’s election infrastructure strains under the weight of the coronavirus crisis. As of Sunday, 1,268,587 absentee ballots had been requested for the election — far more than election officials are equipped to handle. Not only is that almost six times as many as were cast in Wisconsin’s 2016 presidential primary, but it’s also probably a higher volume of absentee ballots than Wisconsin has ever handled. In the 2016 general election, for instance, only 819,316 absentee ballots were counted.1

In addition to the avalanche of ballots arriving by mail, polling places may also be overwhelmed on Tuesday due to a dire shortage of poll workers. As of last Tuesday, almost 60 percent of municipalities in Wisconsin did not have enough poll workers, and more than 100 did not have any. The situation was critical enough that Evers has asked members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard to staff some precincts, but it is still not expected to be enough. As a result, many communities have drastically reduced the number of polling places that will be open on Tuesday; for example, Milwaukee, which normally has 180 polling places, will have only five. Not only could this confuse voters who show up to their normal polling place only to find it shuttered, but it could also lead to big crowds — in violation of public-health recommendations — at the few places that remain open.

Amid all this chaos, on Thursday, the courts even stepped in. In response to a lawsuit seeking a number of changes to the election, a federal judge said it was not his place to delay the election and slammed Evers and the legislature for not doing so; however, he did loosen a few absentee-voting rules. Voters were given an extra day to request absentee ballots, and the deadline for absentee ballots to be received was extended from April 7 to April 13 — creating a very unusual situation in which absentee voters can theoretically cast their ballots after the in-person Election Day on Tuesday.2 However, Republicans are now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to allow only ballots postmarked by April 7 to count (although, in a departure from Wisconsin’s usual election law, they would still be able to arrive late). The result of this legal fight could affect when we get actual results from Wisconsin, as after implementing the April 13 deadline, the judge also instructed election officials to not report any election returns until then.

Indeed, the circumstances of the election have overshadowed any suspense over the actual results — maybe because there isn’t any, at least at the top of the ticket. Despite Sen. Bernie Sanders’s decisive win in Wisconsin in the 2016 Democratic primary, he is a clear underdog this time around. According to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, former Vice President Joe Biden has a 7 in 8 (88 percent) chance of winning the Wisconsin primary, while Sanders has just a 1 in 8 (12 percent) chance — although the forecast doesn’t “know” about the unusual circumstances of the election, so maybe there’s more uncertainty than the math implies. In our average model run, Biden gets 58 percent of the vote to Sanders’s 40 percent, although the only recent poll of the contest — from Marquette Law School — gave Biden a strong 28-point lead. Regardless of the exact margin, though, Sanders is unlikely to pull off the win — and even if he does, Biden is already so far ahead nationally that it probably won’t matter. According to ABC News, Biden currently leads Sanders by 312 pledged delegates, but Wisconsin is worth only 84, so Sanders would need a lot of other things to go right as well.

Instead, the Wisconsin race featuring the most intrigue is probably the one for state Supreme Court. Conservatives have a 5-2 majority on the court, but liberals could cut that to 4-3 if Jill Karofsky defeats incumbent Daniel Kelly on Tuesday. Recent Wisconsin Supreme Court elections have been razor-close, too, and the outcome of this race could have national implications for the 2020 election and beyond.

The court may ultimately decide whether Wisconsin must remove up to 209,000 people from the voting rolls ahead of the 2020 general election; Kelly had previously served as an adviser to the conservative group suing to force the purge. Additionally, with federal courts no longer taking up gerrymandering cases, the state Supreme Court could eventually decide the constitutionality of the congressional map Wisconsin draws after the 2020 census, too.

Whenever they end up getting announced, we’ll recap the results for you — and, perhaps more importantly, assess how the coronavirus restrictions affected the election. If the crisis persists, Wisconsin could offer some important lessons for November on how — or how not — to conduct an election during a pandemic.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: US has held elections during times of crisis before


  1. Of course, absentee ballots requested isn’t the same as absentee ballots counted, but historically, the overwhelming majority of absentee ballots requested are eventually cast, so it’s fair to assume that this election will break 2016’s record.

  2. A third part of the judge’s ruling suspended Wisconsin’s requirement that a witness sign your absentee ballot, but it was overturned on appeal.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.