‘Vote Early, Vote Often’: Did ‘The Chicago Way’ Move North to Wisconsin?

Once upon a time, well within living memory, Wisconsin had a reputation for “squeaky-clean government.” Alas, no more.

Over the last week, what appears to be a national Democratic strategy for dealing with close elections has shown its ugly head in Georgia, Florida, and Arizona, to intense national attention. Less intense in the eyes of the nation has been the drama of Wisconsin’s 2018 election.

Some years ago, Hugh Hewitt published a book with the title If It’s Not Close, They Can’t Cheat. As we say in Talmudic logic, mikelal lav atta shomea hen -- “From a negative statement a positive can be inferred.” Since it was close, they could cheat -- and apparently have.

The last Marquette University Law School poll released before Election Day predicted an incredibly tight election on Nov 6: Republican Governor Scott Walker, seeking a third term, and his opponent, Democratic state Superintendent of Public Education Tony Evers, were neck and neck, each with 47% of the vote. The race between Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel and his opponent, transplanted D.C. attorney Josh Kaul, was similarly close.

After serving a full day as an election inspector in the lefty village of Shorewood, WI -- justly known as the “People’s Republic of Shorewood” -- I then listened to radio coverage of the election results shortly after the polls closed at 8:00 p.m. It was a long night.

To understand what transpired, a brief geography lesson is required. Wisconsin has 72 counties: by far the two largest are Milwaukee County with over a million inhabitants, and Dane County, where the capital Madison is located, with just under 550,000. The southeastern corner of the state, represented by a rectangle drawn from Madison east to Lake Michigan and south to the Illinois state line, is the most populous area.

Both Milwaukee and Dane Counties are Democratic strongholds. What makes Wisconsin elections anything but a foregone conclusion is the existence of the three most conservative counties in the state: Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington (known as the “WOW Counties”), also roughly in the region delineated. As a rule, a Republican running for statewide office has to win 70% or more of the vote in those three counties to offset the effect of Dane and Milwaukee.

By about 11:00 p.m., I was beginning to breathe easier: Dane and Milwaukee Counties had announced that 100% of their precincts had reported in. Yes, Dane County had registered an astounding 218,000 votes for Evers (75% of the vote there) and Milwaukee some 215,000 votes (or roughly 70%), an astounding Democratic turnout in a midterm election. But the voters of the WOW Counties had turned out, too.

Walker had a bit under 67% of the vote in those three. Remaining to be reported: Fox River Valley in northeastern Wisconsin (which includes the city of Green Bay), a moderately conservative area; and largely rural northwestern Wisconsin, the only part of the state that chose Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primary (most of the state voted for Ted Cruz). This was also the site of a Trump rally, by all reports very well attended, in the town of Mosinee prior to the election.

Slowly the Walker vote had been edging up, until the governor was leading by about 7,000 votes. Then suddenly, at about 11:30 p.m., the Milwaukee County clerk delivered a bombshell.

He had apparently “discovered” some 46,000 mostly absentee ballots that had not been included in the previously announced count. Moreover, thousands of those ballots had been “damaged,” then “reconstructed” to enable machine counting. The clerk reported only that a “modem failure” had prevented these from being properly counted.

Unsurprisingly, when the tally was completed, about 38,000 of these were for Evers.

Walker lost the election by some 29,000 votes, a margin of 1.2% of the total. Schimel lost to Kaul by about 21,000 votes.

In an application of the law of unintended consequences, the Republican-controlled state legislature had recently tightened the law concerning a recount. (Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s 2016 demand for a recount inspired the change.) Under current state law, an election result within 0.25% triggers an automatic recount at state expense; a lead larger than that but under 1% grants permission for a recount  at the campaign’s request. Hence, 1.2% was just enough to negate a recount possibility.

How did this debacle happen? The answer seems to lie with incompetence rather than conspiracy.

Walker had, in fact, outperformed his last election. When the dust settled, he had garnered about 30,000 votes more than his most recent win. It was the astoundingly high Democratic turnout in Dane and Milwaukee, and the prevalence of early voting. (Early voting had begun in Milwaukee on September 24 at three polling places and was later expanded to eight -- all strategically situated in heavily Democratic neighborhoods. They were even open over the two weekends before Election Day). The absentee ballots had won the election for Evers.

A part of that massive Democratic turnout was reflected in the fact that absentee/early voting totals in the city of Milwaukee were roughly double what they had been in the 2016 election. Such a large number of early votes caused them to be counted using separate, high-capacity machines (unlike in other municipalities), which meant that they were held until the end. The Wisconsin Board of Elections had authorized the use of smaller envelopes for these absentee ballots in the mistaken belief that this would make it easier for the Post Office to deliver them. But nobody had tested the envelopes before the election.

As it turned out, the letter openers sliced clear through the ballots inside, rendering them useless for machine counting and requiring their reconstruction. Hence, the eleventh hour announcement -- yet they had known about the ballots all along, but had never mentioned them before. The earlier declaration that the count was “100% complete” misleadingly referred only to the regular votes cast.

If there was any fraud or malfeasance (the jury is still out), it was in the roughly 34,000 names in the city of Milwaukee previously stricken from the rolls when a routine check discovered that they either didn’t exist or had moved. These 34,000 were later re-added … at the request of Milwaukee’s Democratic administration.

There are several important lessons to be learned from this debacle.

First (though unlike the states of the Federal union, Wisconsin counties are not sovereign entities), this result starkly demonstrates the wisdom of the Electoral College. It is unquestioned that this election victory was the gift of Dane and Milwaukee Counties, which delivered almost half of Evers’ final vote total. Though there are other Democratic pockets in the state (generally centered around college towns in which branches of the University of Wisconsin are located), the two largest and Democratically dominated counties dominate the state’s elections. The Northeast and West coasts of the United States would similarly dominate national elections without the Electoral College.

The second lesson, derived from the same data, demonstrates the extreme insularity of Democrats in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

A few years ago, my wife encountered a couple moving into a neighborhood house in Shorewood -- the suburb is dominated by employees of the nearby university branch. A friendly, gregarious type, she asked them where they had moved from. They told her that they had moved from Cedarburg, a more conservative suburb located in Ozaukee County, because they couldn’t stand being surrounded by all those conservatives.

This is an increasing phenomenon. The Democrats shoehorned into Milwaukee and Dane Counties live ever more in an information bubble, cut off from the more conservative population surrounding them. They thus imagine that many of their liberal proposals are popular, and are astonished when they discover they are not.

Finally, the culprit in all these election shenanigans -- whether in Georgia, Florida, Arizona, or Wisconsin -- is early absentee voting.

Not long ago, absentee voting was permitted only for a finite number of reasons -- like for military personnel stationed elsewhere but registered in their native state. The vast majority of voters had to show up on Election Day, be validated against a voter list at their polling place, and cast their votes. The current situation -- with early voting permitted a month or more prior (as in Milwaukee County, which has resources most of the more rural counties do not have) -- is simply calculated to make cheating easy, as appears to have been the case.

The phenomenon of vote fraud (not to speak of voter fraud) has been cited again and again during this election cycle, with illegal aliens registered to vote in many locales, and so on. A reversion to the previous standard would go a long way toward reducing this temptation.

In the meantime, the difference between the state legislative elections and the executive branch elections could not be more stark. Wisconsin retained all of her five Republican representatives in Washington (unfortunately, Leah Vukmir failed to unseat Tammy Baldwin for U.S. Senate). In the state Senate, the Republicans gained a seat, increasing their majority from 18 of 33 to 19. In the state Assembly, the Republicans appear to have lost one seat in a very close election. Matt Adamczyk, former state treasurer, was initially reported to have won by 23 votes, but a recount (and the “discovery” that two precincts in the Milwaukee County suburb of Wauwatosa had inexplicably not been counted before) showed him losing by 132 votes. But this resulted in a still hefty GOP majority of 63 out of 99 total seats.

So we’ll have divided government, and complete gridlock -- unless the incoming Evers administration proves a lot more reasonable than his overheated election rhetoric suggested. Meanwhile, the anomalous election results in Milwaukee County are still being scrutinized.

Stay tuned.