Presidential Race Toss-Up in Wisconsin

Madison, Wis. residents Theola Carter, left, and Carrie Braxton fill out their ballots on the first day of the state’s in-person absentee voting window for the Nov. 3 election outside the city’s City-County Building on Oct. 20. (AP Photo/John Hart, Wisconsin State Journal)

MILWAUKEE (CN) — Presidential election results from Wisconsin remained too close to call at 11:20 p.m. Central Tuesday night, with President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden locked in a 51-47% dead heat with about two-thirds of the state’s votes counted.

The former vice president enjoyed healthy margins in liberal strongholds like those in Milwaukee and Madison, while the president maintained his bases in the Milwaukee suburbs and more rural northern regions, the breakdown closely resembling that of 2016 but providing little certainty as to the purple Midwest state’s final results.

Trump took Wisconsin and its modest but critical 10 electoral votes by less than 23,000 votes over Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the state stands in 2020 as a key linchpin both candidates covet on their path to the White House.

Milwaukee County Board of Elections Director Julietta Henry commented around 8 p.m. Tuesday that the final results from Milwaukee will not be done earlier than 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, leaving the state of the race in the crucial battleground unsure as results trickled in the night of Election Day.

This is in line with an important aspect of Wisconsin’s results election officials warned to keep in mind before the election concerning the different ways in which in-person ballots cast at polling places on Tuesday and early absentee and mail-in ballots cast before Election Day are counted and reported.

The Badger State’s decentralized election system means that the state’s more than 1,800 individual municipalities are in charge of running their own polling places and reporting their own returns. Thirty-nine of these — including the state’s largest urban center in Milwaukee, in addition to medium-sized cities like Green Bay, Kenosha and Wausau — use “central count” facilities to tabulate absentee and mail-in ballots separately from in-person votes.

Milwaukee is anticipating around 165,000 absentee ballots, which election officials began opening and counting at the city’s central count facility downtown at 7 a.m. Tuesday, as state law does not allow them to start earlier. Wisconsin law also dictates that those results cannot be reported until the very last ballot is tabulated.

Because of this lag in reporting absentee ballots, election officials, including Milwaukee Election Commission chief Claire Woodall-Vogg, have been saying for weeks that results from these 39 jurisdictions will likely not be counted and reported until the early hours of Wednesday morning.

But the Cream City’s voter base is also overwhelmingly Democratic. This means there is a likelihood that the race will shift at least somewhat in Biden’s favor as these liberal-leaning absentee votes are added to the total turnout several hours after polls have closed.

Of the roughly 3.5 million registered voters in Wisconsin, nearly 2 million had already voted absentee or via mail before Election Day arrived. The Wisconsin Elections Commission, or WEC, reminded reporters Tuesday that official turnout results for the state will not be available for some time after Tuesday.

In 2012,  a record 3,071,434 voters cast ballots and delivered the state to Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a little more than 205,000 votes.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the WEC reported only roughly 970 absentee ballots that were returned and marked as having some kind of deficiency such as a bad signature, a commendable tally considering more than 2 million absentee ballots were issued throughout the state. Around 141,000 absentee ballots were in the wind as of Tuesday morning, but updated numbers on that count should be available Wednesday morning.

Wisconsin does not track party affiliation of absentee and mail-in ballots as they are returned, so there’s no telling as of now whether the camps of Biden, Trump or independent parties availed themselves of that option more than the next.

Reports from throughout Wisconsin Tuesday indicate voting was by and large smooth and orderly. Many election officials, including those in the Milwaukee area, reported turnouts as either steady or slightly below average for a typical presidential election, due in no small part to the record levels of early voting. Instances of understaffed or undersupplied polling places and long lines to vote have been few and far between.

On the whole, concerns about voter intimidation and aggressive electioneering have largely been assuaged by a peaceful, productive Election Day.

The sunny, unseasonably warm weather throughout much of Wisconsin on Tuesday may prove to have driven up voter turnout. But surveys like one Pew Research Center put out in October show that Trump voters are much more likely to vote in person than those supporting Biden, so the benefit there could turn out to be the president’s.

WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe reiterated during a 5 p.m. press briefing on Tuesday that “election night results are always unofficial,” a point that cannot seem to be emphasized enough as an anxious electorate awaits the results of what may prove to be the most consequential and historically fraught presidential election in generations.

Wolfe said Tuesday that if unofficial results are not available until Wednesday morning “it does not mean something went wrong … it means election officials are doing their job,” as those officials are going to value accuracy over speed at all costs.

One area of interest as results trickle in will be from the northeastern part of the state in Outagamie and Calumet counties, where clerks received thousands of ballots with printing errors on the ballots’ timing marks, some of which were returned voted. Clerks from these counties asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court for guidance on whether they should fix the blemishes by hand or duplicate all the misprinted ballots, but the conservative-majority high court split 4-3 and declined to weigh in last Wednesday.

Without the court’s guidance, clerks are reportedly duplicating these ballots by hand, and Wolfe said Tuesday that they are doing well and on track with that challenge. Wolfe offered that since this is part of the overall canvassing process, there’s no hard and fast deadline for getting them corrected by the time the polls close.

There was a raft of lawsuits in Wisconsin in recent months over how long people have to vote, how long clerks have to count their votes and what the role of state election officials should be in facilitating mail-in voting. Those pre-election suits pertaining to Election Day have been resolved, but it is not a stretch to imagine that litigation over which absentee and mail-in ballots should count after they have been cast and tallied could be in the cards, especially if the result is close.

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