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What does voter turnout tell us about Wisconsin senate recalls?

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July 20, 2011

By Geoff Pallay and Greg Janetka

Amended July 21, 2011

MADISON, Wisconsin: Heading into the recalls there have been various projections regarding just how many citizens would show up at the polls. With all of the primaries now complete we are able to get a clearer picture. Unofficial vote totals show that registered voter turnout for the primaries ranged from a low of 10 percent for the Republican primary in District 22, up to 35.75 percent for the District 32 Democratic primary. Meanwhile, in the 30th District, the first recall between Dave Hansen and David VanderLeest had a total of 33,106 votes,[1] putting turnout at 37.14 percent. The 2008 general election in the same district had 78,176 votes.[2]

The total number of registered voters in the chart comes from the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board and is accurate as of July 19. Wisconsin has a live database of actively registered voters which is constantly changing and is purged following each general election. Due to this, it is difficult to accurately determine what the voter turnout percentage was in each of the recall districts in 2008, as the total number of registered voters from 2008 is no longer available. In the general election, eligible voter turnout was about 50 percent, according to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.[3]

According to a press release from the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board in 2010, voter turnout - the number of eligible voters in the 2010 primaries - was 19.6 percent.[4] According to GAB spokesman Reid Magney, across the state, the number of eligible voters is approximately 25 percent higher than the number of registered voters.[5]

Thus, turnout in the recall primaries appears to have exceeded typical voter turnout. In the 8 primary elections held, a total of 206,014 votes were cast for a registered voter turnout of 25.77 percent. The high turnout reflects the massive attention being given to the recalls. In typical special elections, voter turnout is lower than a general election. But here, voters are heading to the polls at higher levels than a normal election.

Note: The number of registered voters is different from the voting age population/eligible voters. According to a GAB release from 2010, there were 4,372,347 people in the voting age group. But not all of those citizens are registered to vote.[4] Therefore, the numbers in the chart below reflect percentage of registered votes, and not percentage of eligible voting age citizens.

Total Number of Votes Cast in 2008 State Senate Primary Elections vs. 2011
District 2008 Democratic primary 2008 Republican primary 2011 Recall primary 2011 Total registered voters as of July 19[6]  % Registered voter turnout in 2011 primary
71 (No candidate) 5,361 (Cowles) 21,776 (Nusbaum) 98,536 22.09%
8,748 (Sheldon Wasserman) 12,561 (Darling) 33,554 (Pasch) 110,619 30.33%
4,805 (Alison Page) 4,204 (Harsdorf) 35,331 (Moore) 112,253 31.47%
6,697 (Holperin) 3,979 (Tom Tiffany) 19,068 (Simac) 98,346 19.38%
24 (No candidate) 5,732 (Olsen) 22,414 (Clark) 91,921 24.38%
1,849 (King) 5,803 (Hopper) 28,519 (King) 93,453 30.51%
7,667 (Wirch) 1,706 (Benjamin Lee Bakke) 9,350 (Steitz) 93,466 10%
1,983 (Tara Johnson) 1,877 (Kapanke) 36,002 (Shilling) 100,700 35.75%

The lowest voter turnout took place in the two Republican primaries, 10 percent and 19.38 percent. For the six Democratic primaries, where legitimate Democratic candidates each faced "protest" or "spoiler" candidates, turnout ranged from 22.09 percent to 35.75 percent. In all eight primaries, the total number of votes cast surpassed the total votes cast in the 2008 senate primary contests in the same districts.

Since primaries were only held for a single party - Republicans on July 12 and Democrats on July 19 - voters did not have to be registered to a specific party in order to vote. In other words, all voters were eligible to vote in the primary, due to Wisconsin’s use of an open primary system.

Campaign ads

Yesterday, Democracy For America -- a left-leaning PAC founded by Howard Dean -- reported on a GAB-7 form to the GAB that it spent $49,721.37 on a Television Ad in support of Fred Clark (D) and against incumbent Republican Luther Olsen. In another GAB-7, the Republican State Leadreship Committee reported $37,021.39 on a Television Ad in support of Kim Simac and against incumbent Democratic senator Jim Holperin.

See also


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