MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin braced Monday for an Election Day unlike any other, with record numbers of votes recorded before polls opened on Tuesday and President Donald Trump planning one last campaign stop as he tries to duplicate his 2016 victory.
Voters said they were nervous not only about Election Day, but about what happens next. Polls have consistently shown Democrat Joe Biden ahead in the state that Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016. Trump has made Wisconsin a focus of his final push, including a stop planned Monday night in Kenosha, while repeatedly refusing to say whether he would agree to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.
“I am confident that Biden will win once all the votes are legally counted but absolutely terrified about what President Trump is capable of when it comes to using the courts to rig the election in his favor,” voter Matt Dommer, of Chippewa Falls, said Monday. “I fear for our democracy.”
Democrats and Biden pushed early voting, leading to high numbers of ballots cast before Tuesday coming from Democratic parts of the state. Republicans hoped to close the gap for Trump with stronger in-person turnout Tuesday.
Nearly 1.9 million people cast their ballots, either by mail or in person, as of Monday morning, fueled by concerns about the coronavirus. Wisconsin remains one of the nation’s hot spots for the virus, with skyrocketing cases, deaths and hospitalizations.
Total votes in already amounted to nearly 42% of Wisconsin's voting age population and 51% of all registered voters. It was about 63% of all votes cast in 2016. The number of ballots returned by mail was about nine times higher than what was returned in 2016.
The last day for in-person absentee voting was Sunday. Voters can now return their completed absentee ballots to drop boxes or their clerk's office. Most polls around the state will also accept them Tuesday, with the the exception of 39 communities, including Milwaukee, where the ballots are counted at a central location.
Only ballots received by 8 p.m. on Election Day will count. The U.S. Supreme Court in October did not allow for an extension as Democrats sought. As of Monday, there were more than 174,000 outstanding absentee ballots.
Because of the extra time it takes clerks to process absentee ballots, which can't be counted until Tuesday, final results may not be known until Wednesday. In 2016, only about 135,000 ballots were received by mail. This year, more than 1.2 million have come in by mail.
Election officials were urging patience and calm as the votes are counted.
“If unofficial results don’t come in until early the next morning, it doesn’t mean something went wrong," Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin's top elections official, cautioned last week. "It means election officials are doing their jobs and making sure every legitimate ballot gets counted.”
Trump has sought to undermine the election results for several months by raising debunked conspiracy theories about election fraud. He planned a return to Kenosha on Monday night, his second-to-last announced campaign rally before the election. Both Trump and Biden campaigned in Kenosha in September, just days after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, who is Black, that set up days of protest and unrest.
Trump and his surrogates have been blanketing Wisconsin in the week leading up to the election. Since Oct. 17, Trump held rallies in Janesville, Waukesha, West Salem and Green Bay. Biden campaigned in Milwaukee on Friday.
Biden, in a statement Monday ahead of Trump's planned campaign stop, focused on the worsening COVID-19 pandemic that has made Wisconsin third highest per capita nationwide in new cases.
“As the coronavirus continues to surge, Wisconsinites are bearing the brunt of President Trump’s failure to lead,” Biden said.