USA: Wisconsin poll place numbers cut. Turnout down by 9%.

On 24 June 2020 following the Wisconsin Primary election where numbers of polling places were cut from 187 to just 5 in Milwaukee and 11% statewide, the Brennan Center for Justice [external link] reported that:

  • Polling place consolidation reduced turnout by 8.6 percentage points
  • Black turnout was especially depressed from these closures.

‘To be clear, a surge in absentee voting may have offset at least a portion of any depressive turnout effects of consolidated polling places: while just 170,614 ballots were cast by mail in the 2016 presidential primary, 964,443 mail ballots were submitted this year.’

The report also concludes that: ‘The serious depressive effects uncovered in Milwaukee — and the racial disparities within them — are cause for concern. Clearly, not all voters who prefer voting in person will seamlessly transition to vote by mail. We cannot know whether Milwaukee residents cast fewer ballots because they were unfamiliar with the mail voting process did not trust it, or were prevented from voting in person because of the long lines. It is also possible that Black voters cast mail ballots at similar rates as other voters but had them rejected at higher rates, thereby reducing their effective turnout. However, given the magnitude of the effect, it is unlikely that this accounts for the full difference.’

‘The case of Milwaukee is important for election administrators to keep in mind as they prepare for this fall’s election. If it can be generalised to the rest of the country, polling place closures will come at the expense of voter turnout — and particularly the turnout of Black Americans. Moreover, a recently released Brennan Center report shows that fewer polling places lead to longer lines to vote, meaning that widespread closures might make casting a ballot harder for in-person voters. If we care about the representation of nonwhite voters and voters wary of casting mail ballots, we must ensure that there are safe in-person options this fall.’

For full details of the methodology and detailed results, please see the original article and see their working paper.


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