April 7, 2020 - Wisconsin Primary

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97 Delegates (84 Pledged)
:  Wisconsin's Spring Election and Presidential Preference Primary devolved into a spectacle that drew national attention.  While other states postponed their primaries due to concerns about coronavirus, leaders in both parties in Wisconsin initially sought to proceed with the primary, which included many races in addition to the presidential vote.  By March 20, election officials were raising serious concerns about conducting the primary.  After considerable legal wrangling and drama, the primary went ahead.  More than 1.5 million Wisconsinites voted in the primary, including more than 1.1 million absentee and 400,000-plus in person.  Biden won the presidential primary, and Sanders suspended his campaign the next day.  The presidential contest was actually something of an afterthought; most attention focused on the Wisconsin Supreme Court contest, in which liberal-backed Jill Korofsky upset conservative incumbent Daniel Kelly.

WISCONSIN PRIMARY (84 pledged delegates)

Official Results   Ballot [PDF]
OTHERS (10+s)
Warren 14,060 (1.52%), Bloomberg 8,846 (0.96%), Klobuchar 6,079 (0.66%), Gabbard 5,565 (0.60%), Buttigieg 4,946 (0.53%), Yang 3,349 (0.36),
Steyer 836 (0.09%), Delaney 529 (0.06%), Bennet 475 (0.05%), Patrick 311 (0.03%)
; Scattering 1,575 (0.17%)

Biden?  |  Sanders Bloomberg  |  Warren

Unlike other states Wisconsin did not postpone its presidential primary.  The Spring Election and Presidential Preference Primary had a lot of races on the ballot and changing the date would have been complicated.  As explained in an amicus brief filed by Gov. Tony Evers:

"The April 7, 2020, election has the following state and local seats on the ballot: a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice; three Wisconsin Court of Appeals judges; 34 Wisconsin circuit court judges; 102 municipal court judges; 1,596 county supervisors and officers; 763 alders, mayors, and other city offices; 464 village board trustees, board members, and other offices; 291 town supervisors, clerks, and other offices; 565 school district board positions; and 12 sanitary district supervisory board positions. Many of these positions have terms scheduled to begin as soon as April 21, 2020.

"The April 7, 2020, election will also decide a state-wide referendum on a proposed amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution, as well as 132 county, school district, and local referenda. Lastly, the April 7, 2020, election will serve as the Wisconsin presidential preference primaries for both major national political parties."

Additionally, Gov. Tony Evers (D) did not have the authority to postpone the primary and leaders in the Republican controlled legislature did not want to act.  Both were encouraging a predominantly by mail election.  However, by March 20, election officials were raising serious concerns about conducting the primary.  Mayors and groups weighed in, including filing several lawsuits seeking to postpone the primary.  Matters became very partisan, and a lot of legal wrangling ensued [see timeline below].  In an April 2 ruling U.S. District Judge William Conley had sharp words for state officials, writing:

"As much as the court would prefer that the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor consider the public health ahead of any political considerations, that does not appear in the cards. Nor is it appropriate for a federal district court to act as the state’s chief health official by taking that step for them."

The Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings on April 6, the day before the primary.  One never wants to see this kind of last minute legal activity for it can lead to voter confusion and makes the job of the election officials more difficult.

Finally primary day arrived.  One of the lasting images of the primary campaign is Assembly Speaker Robin Vos dressed in PPE at a polling place saying it was "incredibly safe to go out (+)."  Vos was working at a polling place in Burlington, a city in his district that has a total population of about 43,000.  In larger cities such as Milwaukee and Green Bay a very different scene was playing out, and there were long lines.  Milwaukee managed to open just five voting centers compared to the normal number of about 180.

Wisconsin Elections Commission reported at total of 1,555,263 votes were cast.  Based on data from county clerks, the WEC said 1,138,491 absentee ballots were returned (>).  Doing the math, more than 400,000 people turned out on Election Day.  Quite a few of these people had requested but not received an absentee ballot (+).  A U.S. Postal Service report from July 2020 "found issues related to the timeliness of ballots being mailed to voters, correcting misdelivery of ballots, an inability to track ballots, and inconsistent postmarking of ballots;" the report presents several recommendations [PDF].

Management Alert: Timeliness of Ballot Mail in the Milwaukee Processing & Distribution Center Service Area.

Overall, WEC reported unofficial turnout was 34.3% (based on an estimated voting-age population of 4,524,066).  This was significantly off from the 47.4% in the 2016 primary (2,113,544 ballots cast), but comparable to the 34.9% (1,511,639 ballots cast) of 2008 (>). 

The outcome of the presidential primary was not a surprise; Biden was seen as near certain to become the nominee and some observers questioned while Sanders remained in the race. The Wisconsin Supreme Court contest did produce a big surprise, as liberal-backed Jill Korofsky upset conservative incumbent Daniel Kelly.

In the Republican primary Trump won 97.87% of the vote:
Trump 616,782 (97.87%), Uninstr. 11,246 (1.78%), A.N.Paul (w/in) 246

All told 1,555,263 votes were cast.


March 18 - DNC and DPW file lawsuit in U.S. District Court to extend electronic and by-mail registration to April 3; suspend photo ID requirements for absentee ballots; and extend the deadline for absentee mail-in ballots to be received.

March 18 - Deadline* to register to vote by mail or online for the Presidential Preference Primary and Spring Election.

*March 20 - U.S. District Judge William Conley orders continuation of onlne registration through March 30 (+).

March 20 - Following on its March 18 meeting, the WEC requests "immediate action" from Gov. Evers to support the primary.

March 24 - Gov. Evers issues a shelter in place order.

March 24 - City of Green Bay files lawsuit in U.S. District Court against WEC, DHS and Governor seeking all-mail primary with June 2 deadline. (+)

March 26 - Souls to the Polls and other groups file a lawsuit against WEC in U.S. District Court seeking to postpone the election. (+

March 26 - League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and other groups file a lawsuit against WEC in U.S. District Court challenging the signature requirement for mail-in absentee ballots. (+)

March 27 - U.S. District Judge William C. Griesbach dismisses the Green Bay lawsuit. (+)

March 27 - Gov. Evers proposes mailing absentee ballots to all registered voters, which Republican leaders quickly reject.

March 28 - U.S. District Judge William Conley issues process ruling on the DNC/DPW lawsuit. (+)

March 30 - Deadline* to register to vote by mail or online for the Presidential Preference Primary and Spring Election.

April 2 - Absolute deadline to request and absentee ballot.

April 2 - U.S. District Judge William Conley, ruling in three consolidated cases, declines to delay the election, but provides relief by extending the deadline for receipt of absentee ballots to April 13, and ordering clerks to accept ballots without a witness signature if the voter provides a statement. (+)  Republicans immediately appeal.

April 3 - Responding to Republicans' appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upholds extending the absentee period to April 13 but rules that absentee ballots must indeed have a witness signature (+).

April 3 - Gov. Evers issues an executive order calling for a special session of the legislature on April 4. (+)

April 4 - Legislators convene and adjourn.

April 5 - Following the ruling of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, RNC and RPW file an emergency application with the U.S Supreme Court on the question of extending the absentee period. (+)

April 6 - Gov. Evers issue an executive order suspending in-person voting for the April 7 election, moving in-person voting to June 9, and directing a special session of the legislature to meet on April 7. (+)

April 6 - Wisconsin Supreme Court rules that Gov. Evers does not have "the authority to suspend or rewrite election laws." (+)

April 6 - Acting on Republicans' emergency application, the U.S. Supreme Court rules 5-4 that Judge Conyers acted erroneously in extending the absentee period to April 13 (+).  [This means that a) absentee ballots must be postmarked April 7, b) people who requested but did not receive an absentee ballot will have to vote in person].

April 7 - Primary day.

April 13 - A group of Milwaukee residents file a class-action lawsuit against Republican legislative leaders and the WEC claiming they were disinfranchised and seeking a partial or full re-vote. (+)

April 13 - Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, orders remained in place blocking election officials from releasing any unofficial results until at least 4:00 p.m. April 13.

More documents and press releases


Delegate Selection Plan
April 26, 2020 - County-level caucuses.
May 17, 2020 - Congressional District caucuses.
June 12, 2020 - State Convention at The Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells, WI (>).