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Did Consolidating Polling Places in Milwaukee Depress Turnout?

Despite a surge of absentee voting, consolidating polling locations in the city of Milwaukee reduced turnout by nearly 9 percentage points, disproportionately affecting Black voters.

Published: June 24, 2020

The weeks lead­ing up to the Wiscon­sin primary elec­tion on April 7 were tumul­tu­ous. On March 27, Demo­cratic Gov. Tony Evers called for every voter in the state to be sent an absentee ballot, but the Repub­lican-controlled legis­lature rejec­ted the idea. The week­end before the elec­tion, Evers called an emer­gency session of the legis­lature, hoping to post­pone the elec­tion; once again, his efforts were stymied. Evers was also blocked in the courts; the day before the elec­tion was to take place, he issued an exec­ut­ive order moving it to June 9, but the state supreme court struck it down.

These maneuvers occurred against the back­drop of short­ages of elect­oral resources. On March 31, the Milwau­kee Journal Sentinel described a dire poll worker short­age: Wiscon­sin was short some 7,000 poll work­ers, a situ­ation that led to the consol­id­a­tion of polling places around the state. The cuts were partic­u­larly drastic in Milwau­kee City, where the number of polling places dropped from 182 in Novem­ber 2016, to just five for this year’s primary. In the rest of Wiscon­sin, the number of polling places dropped by 11 percent. foot­note1_sxsu52j 1 See https://elec­tions.wi.gov/elec­tions-voting/2016/fall and https://elec­tions.wi.gov/node/6524.

As the nation prepares for the Novem­ber general elec­tion, we wanted to test whether fewer polling places decreased turnout in Milwau­kee, or if voters simply shif­ted to the vote-by-mail altern­at­ive. Our answer is no.  To be clear, a surge in absentee voting may have offset at least a portion of any depress­ive turnout effects of consol­id­ated polling places: while just 170,614 ballots were cast by mail in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial primary, 964,443mail ballots were submit­ted this year. However, despite this surge in absentee voting, we find that

  • polling place consol­id­a­tion reduced turnout by 8.6 percent­age points, and
  • Black turnout was espe­cially depressed from these clos­ures.

Meth­od­o­logy

In order to estim­ate what turnout out would have been in Milwau­kee City if not for the polling place clos­ures, we used a match­ing model to pair voters in the city with voters outside the city. foot­note2_o8x1k47 2 Poten­tial controls came from Milwau­kee, Racine, Ozau­kee, Wash­ing­ton, and Wauke­sha Counties. We matched each treated voter to two control voters based on whether they voted in the 2016 and 2018 primar­ies; their gender, race, partisan affil­i­ation, and ethni­city; their latit­ude and longit­ude; and estim­ates of their house­hold income and educa­tion level. The data all come from L2 Polit­ical. This ensured that the “treated” voters (indi­vidu­als living in Milwau­kee City) and “control” voters (those living outside the city) had similar socioeco­nomic char­ac­ter­ist­ics and voting histor­ies. Controlling for these char­ac­ter­ist­ics is import­ant, because they are highly correl­ated with whether someone casts a ballot. For instance, 50 percent of all suburban voters voted in the 2016 primary, while just 27 percent of Milwau­kee voters did so. After our match­ing proced­ure, 27 percent of the suburban voters who were used as controls cast a ballot in that contest. Without controlling for these char­ac­ter­ist­ics, we might only be pick­ing up on a lower propensity to vote in Milwau­kee City — not the effect of the polling place clos­ures.

In addi­tion to the match­ing meth­od­o­logy, we only kept pairs of treated and control voters who live within a half mile of one another. Although the paired indi­vidu­als live in differ­ent cities, they live so close to one another that they likely shop at the same grocery stores and eat at the same restaur­ants. In other words, despite living in differ­ent cities, they are prob­ably simil­arly exposed to Covid-19. foot­note3_5cqbe0y 3 Our meth­od­o­logy closely follows that of this published paper. Like this analysis, that paper combined a match­ing model with a geographic restric­tion around the city border to estim­ate the effect of ballot initi­at­ives on turnout in Milwau­kee City.

We then ran an ordin­ary least squares regres­sion to see if the voters who live just inside Milwau­kee City voted at lower rates than their coun­ter­parts just outside the city. We also tested whether turnout was depressed by a differ­ent amount for Black voters than other voters in Milwau­kee City.

For a fuller discus­sion of our data, meth­ods, and results, please see our work­ing paper.

Polling place clos­ures did reduce turnout in the 2020 primary elec­tion. The table above indic­ates that turnout in Milwau­kee City was depressed by roughly 8.6 percent­age points. Consid­er­ing that 26 percent of our control voters cast a ballot, this implies that polling place clos­ures in the city reduced turnout by a third.

Of partic­u­lar note, we found that this effect was larger for Black voters. Although polling place consol­id­a­tion decreased turnout among non-Black voters by around 8.5 percent­age points, it reduced turnout among Black voters by 10.2 percent­age points.

Look­ing Ahead

The seri­ous depress­ive effects uncovered in Milwau­kee — and the racial dispar­it­ies within them — are cause for concern. Clearly, not all voters who prefer voting in person will seam­lessly trans­ition to vote by mail. We cannot know whether Milwau­kee resid­ents cast fewer ballots because they were unfa­mil­iar with the mail voting process did not trust it, or were preven­ted from voting in person because of the long lines. It is also possible that Black voters cast mail ballots at similar rates as other voters but had them rejec­ted at higher rates, thereby redu­cing their effect­ive turnout. However, given the magnitude of the effect, it is unlikely that this accounts for the full differ­ence.

The case of Milwau­kee is import­ant for elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors to keep in mind as they prepare for this fall’s elec­tion. If it can be gener­al­ized to the rest of the coun­try, polling place clos­ures will come at the expense of voter turnout — and partic­u­larly the turnout of Black Amer­ic­ans. Moreover, a recently released Bren­nan Center report shows that fewer polling places lead to longer lines to vote, mean­ing that wide­spread clos­ures might make cast­ing a ballot harder for in-person voters. If we care about the repres­ent­a­tion of nonwhite voters and voters wary of cast­ing mail ballots, we must ensure that there are safe in-person options this fall. 

End Notes