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The Waukesha Surprise: a closer look at whether the 'missing' Brookfield vote adds up

The Wisconsin Voter

The Journal Sentinel's Craig Gilbert explores political trends in a purple state and beyond.

April 08, 2011
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By Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel

April 08, 2011 0

The Brookfield Bombshell -- the sudden appearance of thousands of decisive ballots in the state Supreme Court race – invites all sorts of obvious questions and suspicions about politics and incompetence.

But do the voting figures look “fishy” from a purely numerical standpoint? Are they implausible on their face based on what we know about the turnout history of Brookfield and Waukesha County compared with other places? 

Not at first glance.

In the post below, I looked at what the new numbers mean for Waukesha County’s overall turnout picture, and suggested that they actually bring the Waukesha County totals more closely into line with similar nearby counties.

In short, before the “adjustment,” Waukesha County was a big outlier. It showed by far the largest drop-off in turnout between the 2010 race for governor last fall and Tuesday’s judicial race (from about  63% to 37%, for a decline of 26 points). After the adjustment, the drop-off is still one of the biggest in the state (from 63% to 42%), but not freakishly so. The statewide drop-off in turnout rate was 16 points, from 50% to 34%.

But here are some other ways to slice the numbers.   

The new figures put the total vote in the city of Brookfield at 14,315. Brookfield has a voting-age population in the 2010 Census of 29,007. (You can find Census data here) So that would make its April 5 turnout equal to 49.4% of voting-age adults.

That number is 15 points higher than the statewide turnout of roughly 34%, but Brookfield is a high-turnout community in a high-turnout county.  Last fall, Brookfield had a rather amazing turnout of 73% of voting-age adults, which was 23 points higher than the statewide turnout of 50% of voting-age adults.

 The 49% Brookfield turnout is also higher than the overall turnout in Brookfield's home county, Waukesha, which would equal 42% of voting-age adults using the adjusted returns. That's consistent with what happened last fall, when Brookfield's turnout was about nine points higher than the turnout rate in Waukesha County as a whole. 

Nor would a 49% turnout rate in Brookfield be out of line with other upscale communities that have high voting rates, according to calculations based on 2010 census data and the still unofficial voting returns from Tuesday.   

The city of Madison turnout was roughly the same as Brookfield’s -- about 49%.

Some Milwaukee County suburbs had higher turnout rates than Brookfield, including Whitefish Bay (59%), Shorewood (51%), Fox Point (56%). Others were lower, such as Wauwatosa (48%) and Franklin (40%).

One very important note about these numbers: All the turnout statistics used here are based on the percentage of voting-age adults who cast ballots – not the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots. Any turnout figures based on registered voters are going to be significantly higher, but they aren’t comparable to the numbers used here.

Local election clerks typically report turnout based on the share of registered voters casting ballots. But I have been using turnout figures based on voting-age adults because that is how the state of Wisconsin measures it; because it makes it much easier to compare turnout levels over time and among states and localities; and because Wisconsin has same-day registration, which means you don't have to be registered before election day to be eligible to vote.   

So beware of comparisons between turnout of registered voters in one place and turnout of voting-age adults in another.  It’s apples and oranges.

Finally, this analysis is not intended to "vouch" for the new numbers, or address questions about how and why they appeared when they did. It's just a look at whether they are plausible on their face.  

Here are the top 10 counties (out of 72) in Wisconsin, ranked by turnout of voting-age adults on Tuesday, using the new adjusted Waukesha County totals. Again, this is based on still unofficial returns:

Waukesha ranks fifth. Last fall it ranked second among the state’s 72 counties.

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About Craig Gilbert

Craig Gilbert is the Journal Sentinel's Washington Bureau Chief and writes the Wisconsin Voter blog about politics and elections.

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More about this blog

The Wisconsin Voter is a blog about elections, political trends and public opinion in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. It is less about politicians than the people who elect them. It’s aimed at political junkies and general readers alike. Its subjects include:

  • The role this state and region play as electoral battlegrounds.
  • Voting patterns and trends at the local, state and regional level.
  • What makes voters here different from voters in other places.
  • Public opinion and the election climate.

Craig Gilbert is the Journal Sentinel's Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief and national political reporter.

Read more about this blog

Wisconsin Trend Tracker

Charting how each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties has trended politically compared to the U.S. as a whole over 60 years of presidential voting. Use the pull down menu to see charts for individual counties. Click here for an explanation of how the charts were done and how to read them.

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All PoliticsFrom Madison and around the state, to Washington D.C., a daily dose of political news and glimpses behind the scenes.


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