MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin, with its perpetual battleground status and tiny voter margins, should be used to some level of election excitement by now.

Even by those standards, though, 2020 has thrown some extra curveballs. And in the aftermath of an unusual Election Day, it’s important to stay informed — and not misinformed — about what happened at the polls, says Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe.

“I know everyone is very passionate, as they should be, about the election,” Wolfe said at a Thursday briefing. “But we have an obligation to engage with the facts.”

Here, we lay out some of those facts about how this historic election shaped up in Wisconsin.


Did Wisconsin have more ballots than registered voters?


The short answer is no. 

Despite claims circulating on social media in the days following the election, officials stress that it’s impossible to cast a ballot in Wisconsin without registering to vote.

Some reports on social media incorrectly stated that Wisconsin had 101% voter turnout this year, apparently citing an outdated voter registration number

According to Wisconsin Elections Commission data, there were 3.68 million active registered voters as of this past Sunday, Nov. 1. Unofficial results — which are now going to be officially certified by the state — showed nearly 3.3 million ballots were cast in Wisconsin this year, a new record. 

Wisconsin also allows same-day voter registration, which means even residents who were not included in Sunday’s count could have registered at the polls and cast their ballots on Election Day.

In the 2016 election, there were 381,444 Wisconsinites who either registered to vote or modified their voter registration on Election Day, the WEC reports. Same-day registrations represented around 12.7% of all voters that year.

Because of the same-day option, Wisconsin uses the total number of eligible voters — instead of the number of actively registered voters — to calculate turnout, Wolfe explained. Some reports circulating on social media also claimed that Wisconsin’s voter turnout had been suspiciously high this year, but they incorrectly used active voter registration numbers to compare turnout rates. 

In the 2016 presidential election, the WEC reported that 67% of all eligible voters cast their ballots. 

This year, an estimated 4.54 million Wisconsinites were in the eligible voting age population, Wolfe said. That would put Wisconsin at around 73% turnout this year — still up from the last election, but not a huge jump.

Eleanor Neff Powell, associate professor of American politics at UW Madison, says it's easy for false claims about the election to gain a lot of ground on social media, and that it's essential to verify your information is coming from official sources.

"Someone finds some random outdated stat that they may have thought was correct in good faith," she says. "But because people can share things and things can go viral so quickly, that misinformation can just spread."


Why did Biden gain ground later on in the night?


Mainly because of large numbers of absentee ballots from heavily Democratic areas, which took longer to count.

Election officials had warned since long before Election Day that it would take some extra time to process this year’s record number of absentee ballots. Nearly 2 million Wisconsinites voted absentee this year — more than twice as many as in the 2016 election, according to WEC data.

Absentee ballots generally take longer to process, as poll workers have to verify the ballots and feed them into the voting equipment themselves. And even though early votes were flowing in for weeks before Nov. 3, Wisconsin laws state that workers can’t process absentee ballots until the polls open on Election Day. 

So, even though it may feel backwards, many of Wisconsin’s early votes were actually counted later than the in-person ballots cast on Tuesday. This doesn’t mean more votes were being cast or “found” after the polls closed, Wolfe said; workers just needed more time to go through all the ballots that were already collected. The state does not count any absentee ballots that are received after 8 p.m. on Election Day.

“Clerks followed the law, and they counted every ballot until they were done,” Wolfe said.

Plus, 39 municipalities in Wisconsin process absentee ballots at “central count” facilities instead of individual polling places. These central count locations can only report results after they’ve gotten through every one of their ballots, which is why we saw late “spikes” in numbers reported in some locations, Wolfe explained.

For example, in Milwaukee — the most populous city in Wisconsin, and historically a stronghold for Democrats — poll workers at a central count facility were tasked with processing nearly 170,000 absentee ballots starting on Tuesday. When they finally wrapped up early Wednesday morning, those absentee ballots were added into county numbers and media reports around 3:30 a.m., which showed an uptick in Biden votes as a result.

Other states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, have also seen a “blue shift'' in this election as more Democratic votes are added when absentee ballots are tallied. Political experts had expected this to happen, as Democratic voters appeared more willing than Republicans to use absentee or early voting to cast their ballots.


What happens now in Wisconsin?


Though all polling places have now reported their results, the state still has to go through several more steps to officially certify the numbers.

Municipalities, counties, and then the state will go through a process to triple-check results, which as of now are still considered unofficial, Wolfe stressed. This is standard procedure in Wisconsin, as in other states; media outlets regularly call state and national outcomes before the full certification process is complete. 

The deadline for the WEC to certify results is Dec. 1. Two weeks after that, Wisconsin’s electors will officially cast the state’s 10 votes in the Electoral College.

Another potential step may be added as Trump’s campaign says it plans to petition for a recount in Wisconsin. A losing candidate can request a recount if the margin is less than 1% of the vote, so the current 0.7% margin is within that range.

The state completed a full recount in 2016, which only changed the margins by 131 votes; Trump is trailing by around 20,000 votes this year. Any potential recount — like the rest of the election processes — would be open for members of the public to observe. 

Though the Trump campaign said its recount request was based on “reports of irregularities” in Wisconsin, Wolfe said Wednesday that her office had not received any such reports. She has said she is “100% confident” in the election, which she described as “an incredible success.”

“I understand that your right to vote is sacred,” Wolfe said. “There is a very robust system that protects your vote and makes sure that only valid ballots can be counted.”