Political divide fuels predictions of record turnout

Party leaders say state issues, national rhetoric has county residents energized ahead of next week’s midterm elections

A YARD FILLED with election signs for Republican candidates next to one with signs for Democratic challengers on Grand Avenue in Port Washington illustrates the political divide that is fueling predictions of heavy turnout in next week’s midterm elections. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

As Tuesday’s midterm election takes center stage, party leaders on both sides of the fence and municipal clerks throughout Ozaukee County agree on one thing — turnout will be big.

“Every year, they say it’s the most important election. Probably this year it’s true,” said Sri Vasudevan, chairman of the Ozaukee County Republican Party.  “I think the turnout will be higher this year thanks to both parties being energized.”

Perry Duman, chairman of the Democratic Party of Ozaukee County, concurred.

“This is an unprecedented election in Wisconsin,” Duman said. “I think this may be the biggest turnout for a midterm election in Wisconsin in a long time. The excitement is there. The energy is there.”

Duman said he’s never seen the local party as energized as it is today, noting a recent Democratic fundraiser sold out and the turnout at monthly meetings has gone from just a handful of people as recently as 2012 to as many as 40 today.

“We still run into pockets where people say, ‘We didn’t know there were Democrats in Ozaukee County,’” he said. “We’ve seen the demographics change quite a bit. We’re getting younger people involved. 

“We’re very confident this will be a blue wave, if not a blue tsunami.”

Duman said the Democrats went door-to-door last year to find out what people in Ozaukee County — both Democrats and Republicans — are concerned about. The answer, he said, is health care, education and roads.

“I think our candidates really address those issues and Wisconsin values,” he said. The high turnout may also be a reaction to the negative rhetoric coming from the White House, spurring them to vote, Duman added.

“There are enough people who are as disgusted with this rhetoric as we are,” he said of some Republicans. “I think people are reacting to the positivity of our message, how we’re going to help you.” 

Vasudevan acknowledged Democrats are energized, and said Republicans had grown complacent since they hold the statehouse, Congress and the presidency.

“I think 2016 was a surprise for a lot of people. The left was extremely dispirited. They’re very motivated,” Vasudevan said.

But in the last couple months, since the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, Republicans have waken up and are ready for a battle, he said.

“The advances we have made at the state level, the federal level, can be turned back if we don’t show up,” he said. “This is a tight race. I think it’s going to be a tough race. But the Republicans are energized now. We’re not going to take this for granted.”

The economy and immigration, as well as health care, are the issues that are motivating people, Vasudevan said.

“It’s a contest of ideas,” he said.

That contest has kept local municipal clerks busy for the last couple of weeks as they send out absentee ballots and conduct early voting.

Port Washington Clerk Susan Westerbeke said the numbers of early voters have been steadily increasing, with 282 ballots cast the week of Oct. 15 — the first week of early voting — 449 the week of Oct. 22 and 127 just on Monday, Oct. 29.

“I imagine by Thursday we’ll be at 150 people a day,” Westerbeke said. “I think for some it’s convenience, people who don’t want to stand in line on election day with their busy schedules.”

The number of absentee ballots and people voting early was at 1,328 Tuesday afternoon, she said, adding the city has also registered 7,116 voters in the past couple weeks. 

The city’s seen a significant increase in the number of college students voting early or seeking absentee ballots, Westerbeke added, something many are doing online through MyVote.wi.gov.

Early voting ends Friday at 5 p.m., and absentee ballots must be requested by Thursday, Nov. 1.

Given the strong numbers, Westerbeke said she has ordered enough ballots for 110% of the registered voters.

“We order more than we have registered voters because we don’t know how many people will register at the polls” and how many people will make mistakes on the ballot that need to be corrected.

Fredonia Village Clerk Sandi Tretow said Tuesday that interest in the election appears to be about the same as the 2016 presidential election, adding she expects an 80 to 90% turnout and has ordered enough ballots to handle 110% of registered voters. 

Early voting has been brisk, too.

“We’ve been getting a couple every day since early voting started but on Monday we had 12 and it looks about the same today,” Tretow said mid-day Tuesday. “I think we’ll get a rush this week.” 

One would-be voter came inside the Fredonia Government Center Monday night hoping to vote, apparently drawn by the lights on while the Parks Board was meeting. The voter was turned away.

Tretow said she’s not sure whether the increase in early voting is due to interest in this particular election or just that more people want to get it done.

“I think part of it is that once people learn how to do it, then they become more used to it,” she said. “Most have said they don’t want to wait in line or something, although we never have long lines here.” 

Fredonia Town Clerk Bob Eichner said three to five people have come in each day over the last two weeks to vote early, adding he expects a turnout “well above” the 465 people who cast ballots in the primary.

Village of Belgium Clerk Julie Lesar said as of Tuesday, the village had a combined 143 people vote early or request ballots through the mail, including one that went to a student in Canada.

“I’m sure social media has something to do with that,” Lesar said of the increase in early voting.

But given the increase in absentee voting, Lesar said she is preparing for a larger crowd on election day. 

Village of Grafton Clerk Kaity Olsen said she expects a turnout of 75% to 80%, noting that already 1,100 people have voted in person and 541 absentee ballots have been sent out.

Grafton Town Treasurer Bonnie Bartel said the town’s mailed out 145 absentee ballots and another 430 people have voted early, most to accommodate their schedules or because they have difficulty getting around.

Some, she added, just “vote to get it over with. They want commercials, phone calls to then stop and (campaign) literature to stop coming.”

In the Town of Port Washington, about 10% of registered voters, or 120, have either voted early or sought absentee ballots, Clerk Heather Krueger said, more than in any other election during the past two years.

Town of Saukville Clerk Raquel Engelke, who noted that more than 5% of the town’s registered voters have already cast ballots, said one issue she has encountered are cards requesting absentee ballots that were sent to residents.

Frequently people return these without the photo identification needed for registration, causing officials to try and reach them to get that information, she said.

Similar issues were reported by Tretow and Westerbeke, who noted that when residents are notified they need to provide an ID card they often come in to vote early.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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