Kenosha, Wisconsin – A drive through rural western Wisconsin reveals a gathering of mud-spattered pick-up trucks and a lone minivan surrounded by Trump flags thrust into the ground just outside of Menomonie.
As the sparse, flat interstate road begins to bend towards the more urban eastern part of the state, Biden-Harris yard signs become a more frequent sight as it stretches into Kenosha where a Trump-Pence billboard towers over boarded-up businesses scrawled with “BLM” – Black Lives Matter.
Wisconsin is one of several battleground states in the midwestern part of the US that each party is still working tirelessly to pull in their direction through election day, driven by the 2016 election that saw razor-thin decisions in several counties. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton there by slightly more than 22,000 votes after the state voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The state had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984.
In Kenosha County, Trump defeated Clinton by just 238 votes in 2016. Third-party candidates wound up receiving almost 1,400 votes in the county that year, more than enough to affect the outcome.
“Friends and neighbours who went that route in 2016 have said they will be voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” said Lori Hawkins, chair of Kenosha County Democrats. Others who opted out of the election, feeling “that their vote wasn’t really needed, have learned that was not the case and that’s an important lesson,” she continued, adding that “our Republicans for Biden pins have been selling quite well”.
In Door County, tourism drives the economy. In the Lake Michigan-flanked peninsula due north of Green Bay that Trump took by 566 votes in 2016, the chair of the county Republican Party, Stephanie Soucek, saw similar course corrections from 2016 towards the opposite direction. “There are people who I know didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 are voting for him now based on his record,” she said.
There is one way in which this year’s race feels similar to Soucek, and that is the polls. “I honestly think the polls are a bit off in part because I really think there are some people who don’t want to admit … they don’t want to face backlash. They want to keep drama out of it and quietly vote for Donald Trump,” she says.
She is right — as in 2016, polls, by and large, have Biden ahead, including the state’s revered Marquette University Law School poll that, as of October 28, put Biden in the lead by five percentage points. Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette poll which has conducted 24 polls since 2016, agreed that there is uncertainty and differences across polls.
Putting Clinton ahead of Trump by six points in 2016, he says, “was the biggest error we’ve ever had in our polling. In fact, the first race we’ve gotten wrong in terms of the winner.”
Other polling in the state has shown larger Biden leads, but Franklin’s takes a more conservative approach. “My poll is consistently not the lowest necessarily, but towards the low-end,” he said, with a 4.3 percentage point margin of error. “If we have the same size polling error this year as we all had in ’16, the margins this time are big enough that Biden would still be a little bit ahead,” Franklin says, hastening to add that there’s no guarantee that there will not be an even bigger error this year, but that an error can go either way.
After swinging from Obama to Trump in 2016, Wisconsin has seen something of a pendulum heading back in the other direction.
Two years ago, 2018 was a record-setting midterm election in Wisconsin. More than 2.67 million voters — more than 59 percent of the voting-age population — turned out compared with 54.7 percent in 2014 and 49.6 percent in 2010. Democrats Tony Evers and Tammy Baldwin pulled off narrow victories in the governor and US Senate races respectively, their party gained 40 seats to flip the state’s House of Representatives, and liberal-leaning Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet was elected to the state Supreme Court.
“The state has been swinging back left,” explained Professor Michael Wagner of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Whether or not that swing will come full circle November 3 remains to be seen, especially as the past four years and 2020, in particular, has put the election on a vastly different playing field.
Thanks in part to the pandemic, Wisconsin has seen higher than usual rates of absentee voting, already nearly reaching the 2.97 million total ballots cast in 2016.
As of November 2, slightly more than 1.89 million Wisconsinites have voted early by mail or in person, including 1.24 million mail-in ballots, outpacing the 830,763 absentee ballots cast in 2016. Per state law, those mail ballots cannot begin to be counted until the polls open on Election Day. Those that have yet to be returned must be in by 8pm (02:00 GMT) on election night, including those sent by mail after the US Supreme Court refused to revive a lower court’s decision that would have extended counting by six days after the election.
That decision could end up playing a significant role in the outcome of the election, just as rejected ballots could.
Other states like Minnesota have waived witness requirements for absentee ballots due to COVID-19. Wisconsin still requires that absentee voters have a witness who includes their address on the ballot, another opportunity for mistakes that can lead to rejected ballots. Wisconsin’s April primary race saw 23,000 rejected ballots, a number big enough to tilt an election in the swing state.
Then there are demographics to consider. Compared with 4,457,375 eligible voters in 2016, there are an estimated 4,536,293 Wisconsinites of voting age in 2020 — 86 percent of which are white and 6 percent are Black — heading into an election where racial inequality is on people’s minds.
In August, white Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, seven times in the back as his children watched. Blake’s encounter with police violence left him paralysed and set off days of protest and civil unrest, signs of which can still be seen in Kenosha today.
Going into Tuesday, the outcome of the election in Wisconsin is anything but certain. Governor Tony Evers has deployed 400 National Guard members to support the Wisconsin Elections Commission in various capacities, from sanitising election stations to counting ballots as needed should volunteers become unavailable. Troops began receiving training Sunday and will report for duty, dressed in civilian clothes, starting Monday.
While the chair of the elections commission has until December 1 to formally certify the results of the election, as unofficial results begin to filter in there are a few things to both watch and understand.
In Wisconsin, 39 municipalities – including Kenosha, Green Bay, and Milwaukee – are authorised to use a central count location to tally absentee ballots separately from polling places. This means that in these locations the results from the polls will not include absentee ballots. They will instead be added afterwards, once the work at central count is complete. However, municipalities are required to post the number of absentee ballots received by close of polls at 8pm (02:00GMT).
As results start to come in, Wagner advises keeping an eye on Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties, as well as those that comprise the northeastern Fox Valley: Outagamie, Calumet, and Winnebago counties.
Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington are “three counties that surround Milwaukee known as the WOW counties. They’re important conservative strongholds, but they wavered a bit in the April election. If their turnout is low, it’s bad for Trump,” Wagner said. The Fox Valley counties, on the other hand, can be a representative window into what might happen statewide.