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Wisconsin's presidential primary and spring general election is April 2, 2024. Here's a guide on Milwaukee-area candidates and information on how to vote.

The GOP is pushing early voting. How are Wisconsin voters responding?

In Milwaukee County, Republican leaders want Republicans to vote early so they can work at the polls, or get out the vote of low-propensity voters.
Maayan Silver
In Milwaukee County, Republican leaders want Republicans to vote early so they can work at the polls, or get out the vote of low-propensity voters.

The 2024 presidential race is on track to be a rematch of 2020’s candidates, Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump. But Republicans are diverging from their 2020 campaign when it comes to early voting. The national GOP launched a nationwide early voting program “Bank Your Vote” in Wisconsin last July. It’s now a 50-state effort to go toe-to-toe with the Democratic Party on early voting.

Parties took different approaches to voting in 2020

The 2020 election took place during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. The Biden campaign and Wisconsin Democrats encouraged social distancing and had few in-person events. Then-GOP candidate and President, Donald Trump, held rallies and railed against early voting – especially mail-in voting using absentee ballots.

On mail-in voting, Trump continuously spread the falsehood that sending people absentee ballots would lead to “massive cheating.” While election experts say fraud in mail balloting is slightly more common than in in-person voting, NPR reports that it's still such a minuscule amount it's not statistically meaningful.

The Bipartisan Policy Center explains: “Before they are counted, election officials vigorously verify the validity of every mail ballot submission. Mail ballots suspected of fraudulent activity are set aside for further investigation and, when appropriate, are referred to law enforcement for prosecution.”

In Wisconsin, any registered voter can request a mail-in ballot.

Trump has also raised concerns about “ballot harvesting” – people collecting and returning ballots on behalf of other voters. As of 2022, in Wisconsin, voters need to physically return their own mail-in ballots.

Democrats have early voting advantage

The pandemic led to a sea change in the voting habits of Democrats around the country, including in Wisconsin. In 2020, exit polls showed that then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden received only 26% of the election day vote in Wisconsin, but 46% of the early in-person vote and 71% of the mail-in vote.

As Politico reports, Democrats have maintained an early vote advantage in Wisconsin. In the state supreme court election in 2023, at least 435,000 people voted early. “[Democratic] Party officials estimated that Protasiewicz [the liberal-backed supreme court candidate] banked at least a 100,000 vote lead from those early voters,” Politico reports.

Early voting has also become more accessible to voters since 2020.

Republicans try to make up ground on early voting

Republican officials are now trying to get more Republicans to vote early.

The national GOP is running its Bank Your Vote campaign to encourage mail-in and early in-person voting.

The Wisconsin GOP website states: “[Banking early votes] helps secure additional votes from Republicans who might not have voted otherwise. These early voters are removed from voter contact universes allowing us to be more efficient targeting the remaining Republican voters we need to turn out.”

But getting Former President Trump on board with the message has proven difficult. Trump joined in on one promotional montage of prominent Republicans, telling voters to take a pledge to vote early at BankYourVote.com. “We must defeat the left at their own game,” Trump says.

But he continues to wrongfully claim that he won the 2020 election and that "you automatically have fraud" when mail-in voting systems are used.

Since he became the 2024 presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Trump has reworked the national party, eliminating Ronna McDaniel, a key advocate for Bank Your Vote, and handpicked new leadership. There’s been some uncertainty as to whether Bank Your Vote will persist, or if there will be a new “Grow the Vote" effort, focusing on low propensity voters, or, if Republicans need to push both.

Whatever the early vote messaging, how is it resonating with Republican voters in Wisconsin?

Some grassroots organizers start their own messaging efforts

At a rustic supper club called Clifford’s in the Milwaukee suburb of Hales Corners, dedicated Wisconsin conservatives have coalesced for a get-out-the-early-vote event, St. Patrick’s Day-style. Tables with Trump campaign pins and earrings are in one corner, and pro-NRA and anti-abortion booths are in the other. A mostly older crowd listens alternatively to political speeches by organizers and holiday tunes sung by a woman in a green sparkly dress.

These grassroots activists are here to get the early vote out, and some of them don’t feel that the state or national GOP is doing enough to get the message to voters.

Wisconsin conservatives gather for an early vote, get-out-the-vote event on St. Patrick's day weekend.
Maayan Silver
Wisconsin conservatives gather for an early vote, get-out-the-vote event on St. Patrick's day weekend.

“I haven't heard it,” says Geary Morales, a Trump voter and third-generation Mexican who grew up on Milwaukee’s south side and describes himself as a Christian constitutional conservative. “I don't have a lot of confidence in the RNC in Wisconsin or on the national level. None. They don't do anything. It's all talk, no action. You got the Democratic Party. They're everywhere. They're out-funding us.”

Morales hadn’t heard about the Bank Your Vote effort. He says he’s at events like the one at Clifford’s, because “You got to put a fire under people! You got to say, ‘Come on!’ You gotta get off your couch and start doing something ... Be the solution, be part of the solution. Be proactive.”

Morales considers early voting part of the solution. “Absolutely. We missed it in the last [2020] election. We didn't do any of that. And we got clobbered. Because we didn’t [push early voting], and the Democratic Party and their ground troops did. So, we got to, we got to like, come on!”

In Wisconsin, voters can cast their ballots early in-person at select locations or mail in their absentee ballots. Morales is apprehensive about the latter. “I wouldn’t mail it in,” he says. “It might get lost.”

Orville Seymer of Franklin is another Trump voter who was attending the party. He supports mail-in voting as a way to get wary voters to cast ballots. “Bring the polls to your friends, don't drag them to the polls,” says Seymer.

“My focus is ensuring that people know when they can vote early, so that they're not left out in the cold,” he says. “The approach is to use the absentee ballot procedure, getting people who typically would not vote, to get them out to vote. You talk to your friends and neighbors, check the voting history, and if they don’t vote, that’s your candidate.”

But Seymer says he understands why former President Trump was raising the alarm about mail-in ballots. He believes there’s potential for fraud, despite requirements like witness signatures on envelopes.

“The ideal thing is, and I don't think we'll ever get back to this point, is to have one day [of voting] at the polls, and you got to have a good excuse [to not vote on Election Day]. Like you're out of town, you're in the hospital or something like that, to cast an absentee ballot.” But Seymer understands people not wanting to wait in line an hour to vote and says he’s on board with early voting “because that’s the law that we have to work with.”

Despite all the focus on early voting, Seymer says he’s actually a tried-and-true Election Day voter. “I typically vote at the polls,” he says. “It just goes back — I've been doing this for about 25 years, I always take a dozen donuts with me to the polls, and I give it to the poll workers.”

Young Republicans have mixed views

Some younger Republican voters in Milwaukee also agreed with that mindset. Elliot Sgrignuoli is president of the Marquette University College Republicans.

“I'm going to encourage everyone I know to vote in-person on Election Day,” says Sgrignuoli. “Obviously, some people can't make that day. So if they can't, I'm gonna encourage them to vote earlier in person. But considering I live here in Wisconsin, I'm going to be able to go home and vote in my local area and then come back to school with no issue.”

Estella Hageman is on the executive board of the college Republicans of Marquette, but she’s from Colorado. She won’t have Wisconsin residency for purposes of voting until after the 2024 presidential election, so she’ll be mailing her ballot in. In Colorado, everyone gets mailed a ballot automatically.

“I'm going to fill my ballot out at home and mail it in,” says Hageman. “I trust the process, I think it will be counted and it will be just fine. I like to get my vote in early and not rest on the fact that I'm going to have to show up that one day and make myself go if something comes up or something gets busy, as voting is very important to me.”

Eighteen-year-old Hageman says she’s eager to spread this message to other students in Wisconsin this year, especially because she says a lot of new voters like her will need to do research on the candidates.

“I just feel much more comfortable doing that [research] in my own home with my ballot in front of me,” she says. “I've just always found that that's the way that I'm the most informed voter. And that's been an issue that's been very pressing on me is how can we make people voting be the most informed they can possibly be? So, I personally like the idea of early voting and mail and voting just because I feel like the voters will be a little more informed and understand what they're voting for. Instead of feeling pressure to do like party-line voting on Election Day and voting for names they recognize.”

But Sgringnuoli, the 20-year-old Wisconsin organizer, thinks in-person voting is the way to go. “Obviously, if you can't vote in-person, I understand using mail-in votes, I'm just a little bit more skeptical on the results of that, given the possible issues that could arise with the mail. But I'm just encouraging people to vote.”

Hilario DeLeon is the head of the Milwaukee County GOP. He's aiming to "lose Milwaukee [county] by less."
Maayan Silver
Hilario DeLeon is the head of the Milwaukee County GOP. He's aiming to "lose Milwaukee [county] by less."

Milwaukee County Republicans tackle election skepticism, apathy

On a busy street dotted with chain restaurants and local pubs, Hilario DeLeon is instructing volunteers at the Milwaukee County GOP headquarters. A young Hispanic man, he’s the head of the Milwaukee County GOP. At just 23 years old, he wants to “lose [the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee] by less,” and connect with low-propensity voters by reaching them where they’re at.

“I know, early on before the Bank Your Vote effort was started, having the conversation of just participating in the election has always been a tough topic, because of what happened in 2020. People felt like the election was stolen, or they felt like mail-in ballots canceled out their votes,” says DeLeon.

“Because COVID, the way that campaigns were being run, you had Joe [Biden] in his basement, you had Trump rally after rally after rally. And the messaging was there. But that's a huge debate that's still going on,” he says.

“I’m just telling people, the best way to understand the election process is by participating in it,” says DeLeon. “After they bank their vote, awesome. Become a poll worker, become a poll observer, understand how that system works, because then you become more confident in the process, more confident in the system, because you're there at the table and making sure that addresses line up when you're a poll worker and everything matches, there's no issues.”

“[If Republicans bank their votes and then work at the polls, they can see that] there's no ballots that are just being thrown out, or there's ballots that might need to be reconstructed,” explains DeLeon. “And there's, you know, integrity between, you have a Republican and a Democrat, both sitting at a table, and they can sit together and figure out which way they voted. I’ve seen that many times at [Milwaukee’s] central count.”

Even if Republican voters aren’t on board with early voting, DeLeon says that doesn’t frustrate him.

“I think it's more frustrating when there's people that are just like, ‘I don't want to be involved. I don't want to vote. It doesn't matter.’ That's the more frustrating problem. Because there's more people that have that mentality, that could easily sway how the election results end up on election night, if they just participate.”

For Some Republicans, Trump’s animosity towards mail-in voting is a problem

But at least one Republican in Wisconsin has found his party’s presumptive presidential nominee's commentary on early voting to be counterproductive. Rohn Bishop is the mayor of the city of Waupun, and the former head of the Fond du Lac County GOP. It’s the home of Ripon, which has been called “the sentimental birthplace” of the Republican Party. Bishop has been fighting to get Republicans to vote early in Wisconsin, both in person and by mail, since 2020, and has dealt with blowback because of it.

“Where Trump is hurting himself again as he did four years ago,” says Bishop, “Is he just doesn't want people to do it [early vote]. And he says it's rigged. And it gives him a complaint when the election is over, and he loses, and he blows smoke and mirrors. But the reality is early voting ... generally helps Republicans. There's nothing wrong with it.”

Bishop has thrown his full support behind mail-in balloting, and says it just makes sense for Wisconsin Republicans, who tend to be spread out more in suburbs and rural areas.

“The town clerk in the town of Alto is some part-time farmer’s wife, right?” he says. “This isn't her real job. So, you can't go to the town hall tomorrow at three o'clock and vote. You've got to make an appointment with her and probably go to her house after five when she's done milking the cows.”

Bishop notes that the big cities like Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Stevens Point, and La Crosse have full-time staff at a city hall that's open for early voting for two weeks.

“Those are Democrat strongholds,” he says. “In the meantime, where all the Republican voters live, early voting is a challenge. So we have to push the mail-in voting, because I don't want some Republican dairy farmer in western Fond du Lac who would vote for a dead Republican over a living Democrat to not go to the polls because his cow has birthed on election day.”

He says Trump, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is not helping local or statewide efforts.

“If you're Brian Schimming [the chair of the Wisconsin GOP], you gotta be pulling your hair out. Because you spend a couple of years trying to convince Republican voters [that] it's important to vote early and why we want you to bank your vote. And then Trump goes on the Hannity show and blows that [expletive] up. And it's a logistical nightmare for the Republican Party, because we literally go into election day 100,000 votes down, because we're convincing our people to not vote early. Now, if all of our voters turn out on election day, we can overcome it and we can win. But we haven't been doing that.”

Wisconsin’s presidential primary is set for April 2. Both presidential candidates have already clinched the presumptive nomination. But there are local races on the ballot, along with statewide constitutional referendums.

Early voting started on March 19th, and it’s another opportunity for both parties to get their voters familiar with the process.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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