Wisconsin State Journal: Nearly 800,000 early votes cast so far in Wisconsin 
By: Matthew Defour
November 7, 2016

Nearly 800,000 Wisconsin voters have already cast early ballots this year, shattering the previous record from the last presidential election.

The absentee ballots returned so far include 650,782 in-person votes, which by themselves are just behind the 664,597 total absentee ballots cast in 2012.

There were 647,175 absentee ballots cast in 2008 or 21.6 percent of all ballots — a record that will most likely fall after all of Tuesday's votes are tallied.

Sunday was the last day early in-person voting was available under a federal court ruling that struck down previously imposed time limits on such voting. Mail-in and other absentee ballots can be returned to local clerks or polling places by the 8 p.m. close of voting on Tuesday.

Some cities, such as Madison, allowed in-person early voting as recently as Sunday. Milwaukee's last day for early voting was Saturday. Most other municipalities ended early voting on Friday.

In 2011, Republicans limited in-person absentee voting to two weeks and one weekend before an election. Previously voting was allowed from when ballots were available through the weekend before an election.

Then in 2014, Republicans limited early voting to the 10 weekdays before an election between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.

In late July, U.S. District Judge James Peterson ruled the state Legislature changed the law to curtail voting in Milwaukee, specifically "to suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee's African-Americans."

"Wisconsin has the authority to regulate its elections to preserve their integrity," Peterson wrote, "Parts of Wisconsin's election regime fail to comply with the constitutional requirement that its elections remain fair and equally open to all qualified electors."

An appeals court kept Peterson's ruling in place while the state Justice Department appeals it, effectively allowing municipal clerks to set their own early voting hours as they did before the 2011 changes to the law.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week that the Legislature may re-examine the issue of limiting early voting next session to standardize it across all municipalities.

The issue has taken on increased significance as get-out-the-vote efforts have become an increasingly important focus of both Republican and Democratic election strategies.

Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Institute, which filed the lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's early voting law, issued a statement Monday calling early voting "an amazing success."

"These record numbers show that voters vote when given the opportunity to vote," executive director Scot Ross said. "And expanded early voting makes it easier and more convenient than ever for legal voters to participate in our democracy."

Even though absentee voting has become more popular, it doesn't mean overall turnout will be higher, said Michael Haas, Wisconsin’s chief elections official.

"A number of factors may be contributing to this year’s higher absentee turnout, but the long term trend has been toward increasing use of absentee voting both by mail and in clerks’ offices," Haas said.

The Commission is predicting 3.1 million people or nearly 70 percent of the voting-age population will vote in Tuesday's election, which includes the U.S. presidential election, a U.S. Senate rematch and races for the U.S. House, state Assembly and state Senate, as well as local partisan offices and school district referendums.