Nearly 800,000 Wisconsin voters have already cast early ballots this year, shattering the previous record from the last presidential election.
The increase comes in the wake of a contentious federal court ruling that invalidated restrictions on early voting hours, and as voters decide the most divisive and bitterly fought presidential election in modern American history.
Of the 797,707 early ballots returned so far, 55.8 percent were in counties that President Barack Obama won in 2012. Nearly 651,000 votes were cast in person, at municipal clerks’ offices and other early voting sites.
The total number of early votes cast isn’t final. Voters have until the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday to get their absentee ballots to their local clerk, so final totals won’t be known until later.
But the number of early votes cast has already surpassed the nearly 665,000 cast in 2012 and little more than 647,000 cast in 2008.
The 2008 total was 21.6 percent of all ballots — a record in percentage terms that will certainly fall after all of Tuesday’s votes are tallied. The early votes already cast this year account for 22.4 percent of all registered voters in the state.
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.
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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.”
A federal 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.
The ruling also eliminated a requirement that in-person early voting could only occur at one location in a municipality. Madison opened 14 locations throughout the city at libraries and on campus. Green Bay’s clerk came under fire for asking the state Elections Board whether she could deny a request from a Democratic lawmaker to locate an early-voting site on UW-Green Bay’s campus because students tend to vote for Democrats.
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 turning out partisan voters 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.