MADISON, Wis. — About 1 in 3 absentee ballots cast in Wisconsin so far have come from the state’s largest and most heavily Democratic counties, giving Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign a reason to be optimistic about its chances here, even as polls show a tight race with Republican Donald Trump.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, in a conference call with reporters on Thursday, singled out Dane and Milwaukee counties as places around the country where early voting turnout was strong. And at a Friday rally, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren urged Democrats to vote as soon as they left the event in downtown Madison.
“With everybody voting, we win,” Warren said.
Wisconsin voters do not register by party, so it’s impossible to know whether more Republicans or Democrats are voting early. But high turnout in Madison and Milwaukee, the state’s two largest and most Democratic cities, is essential for Clinton’s campaign and that of Senate candidate Russ Feingold.
Numbers compiled by the state Elections Commission show that as of Friday, 70,740 absentee ballots have been returned statewide. Of those, 22,511 were from either Milwaukee or Dane counties, or about 31 percent of the total cast statewide. By comparison, in the heavily Republican suburban Milwaukee counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, only 6,420 early votes have been cast.
In-person absentee voting hasn’t started yet in many Republican parts of the state. But even when counting only mailed-in absentee ballots, about twice as many have been returned in Milwaukee and Dane counties compared with Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties.
Gov. Scott Walker on Friday downplayed the early returns, saying that given the unconventional campaign Trump is running, “it’s hard to tell if conventional trends will be in line.” Walker said he was confident that grass roots organizing by Republicans will drive strong turnout for GOP candidates.
Milwaukee and Madison began offering in-person absentee voting on Sept. 26 after a federal judge ruled in July that a two-week limit on voting early was unconstitutional. Other smaller cities, towns and villages have also been allowing voters to cast ballots weeks ahead of the election. Still others will begin or expand early voting opportunities in the next three weeks.
Trump and Feingold’s opponent, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, have also been encouraging their supporters to get to the polls early. Trump scheduled a campaign stop Saturday in southeast Wisconsin, where he will be joined by Johnson, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Walker and other Republican officeholders and top officials.
Warren dubbed the gathering “extreme Republican hug night” and blasted Trump as a “selfish little sleaze ball,” a “two-bit con man” and “the ultimate racist bully.” She was making two stops in Wisconsin with Feingold just two days after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders held rallies in the state.
Trump’s Wisconsin director Pete Meachum said in a statement that Clinton was sending surrogates to the state “because Wisconsin voters don’t trust her.”
“Unlike Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump understands the concerns everyday workers are facing,” Meachum said. “To him, they’re real people who deserve to be represented by someone who will fight for them, not dismissed as a ‘basement dweller’ or ‘deplorable.'”
Early voting opportunities vary across the state. Green Bay, where people lined up to cast ballots in the April presidential primary and there is an open congressional seat, has only one location for early voting open at the city clerk’s office downtown. That has generated complaints from Democrats who want early voting to also be available on the University of Wisconsin campus about 5 miles away.
City clerk Kris Teske has said she doesn’t have the staff or budget to expand hours and locations.
Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now has pushed for expanding early voting in Green Bay and other cities, including Kenosha and Racine. Scot Ross, director of the group, said it was “unfortunate” that early voting hours and locations are so haphazard across the state.
“Everybody should have as long of a period to vote as possible,” Ross said.
As of Friday, more than half of the early votes cast so far — about 38,793 out of 70,740 — have been done in person. In 2012, more than 512,000 people cast in-person absentee ballots statewide in the presidential race out of about 659,000 absentee ballots in total.