No, Wisconsin voter turnout wasn’t ‘improbably high.’ Here’s the facts about turnout calculations

In the wake of former Vice President Joe Biden’s win in Wisconsin by about 23,000 votes according to unofficial totals, theories have been flying from social media influencers that involve miscalculations of turnout or comparisons of turnout rates that aren’t equal. Frequently located outside Wisconsin and picking up traction within the state on Twitter and Facebook, accounts posting about “improbably high” turnout or theories of “more votes than registrations” lack both context and facts. 

According to unofficial results, Wisconsinites cast more votes than in any other presidential election. Turnout, however, remained at a rate on par with many past presidential elections in the past two decades. Voters turned out in high numbers in red and blue counties alike, with many rural counties–as is common–turning out numbers at 80% of the voting age population or higher. But claims that the state had reached an improbable voting turnout based on past elections, with the accompanying implications of fraud, are false.

Differentials in Voter Turnout Calculations

Much of the confusion can be traced to the use of different voter turnout equations. Clerks around the state will at times use voter registrations as the denominator for measuring turnout, a number that is essentially always smaller than the actual number of the voting age population in a municipality or county. The Wisconsin Elections Commission doesn’t use that denominator–and neither do many election officials.

Instead, the WEC measures turnout using the voting age population metric as defined by the Wisconsin Demographic Services Center, a division of the Department of Administration. That denominator has been used for all statewide turnout estimates, which range from 57% (1996) to 72.9% (2004), the current highest turnout when measured by population rate.

Unofficial results indicate a 72.67% voter turnout for Tuesday’s Wisconsin election statewide, the second-highest in the state and a far cry from the misleading social media claims citing a much higher and very misleading turnout number as an implication of suspicious activity. 

When using different baselines, the results get distorted–and can be confusing. Turnout measured by the (smaller) registration number yields a higher result, and is frequently used by clerks when releasing preliminary turnout. There isn’t a standardized statewide approach to calculating turnout at the county and municipal level, WEC’s Reid Magney said. That’s in part because turnout measured by voter registrations is an easier software calculation for some clerks, and also because voter registrations in Wisconsin have only been required since 2006 in municipalities of under 5,000. That was when the Help America Vote Act took effect in Wisconsin, a federal law that introduced sweeping changes to the voting process in the United States.

Same-day Voter Registration

False claims circulated about some wards in Milwaukee having more votes than registered voters, a debunked claim originating with a so-called local news site owned by the Metric Media Publications company and later being pushed by Sean Hannity of Fox News. MMP is owned by a conservative businessman who’s specialized in creating websites that generate mostly-automated ‘news’ articles and headlines paid for by politicians or lobbyists.

Meagan Wolfe, the chief elections official in Wisconsin and administrator of the WEC, noted in a press conference on Wednesday that a turnout rate over 100% is sometimes explained by a discrepancy in day-of registrations.

“For example, if the city has 100,000 registered voters as they head into the election, if 10,000 new voters register using election day registration, those jurisdictions will sometimes report 110% turnout,” she noted. “[Day-of registrations] increases the number of voter registrations.”

It’s impossible for more votes to exist than voter registrations, she explained. In the case of Milwaukee, every ward shows a number of votes fewer than voter registrations in the ward.

“The fact of the matter is, voter turnout in Milwaukee for this election was almost identical to 2016,” Magney noted. Turnout in both 2016 and 2020 remained severely below the Obama-era turnout, with 2020 unofficial results showing just 20,000 more votes cast in the county than in 2016’s election. In the city of Milwaukee, the difference was only about 200 votes (again, 2020 votes have not yet been certified). 

The number of Election Day registrations won’t be known until local clerks finish reviewing results and checking voter participation and poll logs. Under Wisconsin law, clerks have 45 days in a presidential election to certify those results. In the past, day-of registrations during Presidential elections typically number in the hundreds of thousands.

UW-Madison professor Mike Wagner strongly encouraged social media users to check their sources.

“Constantly demand whoever is sharing statistics where they got them from and what numbers are going into the calculations they’re bringing out,” he noted.