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Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee election commission collects the count from absentee ballots from a voting machine on November 04, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee election commission collects the count from absentee ballots from a voting machine on November 04, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee election commission collects the count from absentee ballots from a voting machine on November 04, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Madeline Heim
By Madeline Heim November 4, 2020
Eric Litke
By Eric Litke November 4, 2020

A razor-thin margin, a slow vote count and a presidential election hanging in the balance have created the perfect storm for misinformation in Wisconsin.

The morning after the election, social media generated an avalanche of claims about Wisconsin voting totals, timing and turnout. Much of it isn’t true.

We’re separating fact from fiction on some of the most widely shared claims. 

(This story will be updated throughout the day.)

CLAIM: "There have been reports of irregularities in several Wisconsin counties which raise serious doubts about the validity of the results."

This unproven assertion came mid-morning Wednesday from Bill Stepien, campaign manager for Trump’s campaign.

At this point it’s unclear what this refers to, as Stepien offered no evidence or detail on these "irregularities." We’ve seen no reports of anything in this vein from Wisconsin, where state elections officials say voting went smoothly.

"Wisconsin’s counting and reporting of unofficial reports has gone according to law," Meagan Wolfe, the director of the state Elections Commission, said in a news conference earlier that morning. "Yesterday’s voting process and election night counting went very well in Wisconsin and across the country. Despite more absentee ballots, the evening proceeded in a very normal fashion. … and every step of the process is publicly observable."

We should note Trump has wildly overshot on previous claims of voter fraud, including a debate claim that ballots in Wisconsin "are being dumped in rivers" or creeks that we rated False on Oct. 9, 2020.

CLAIM: "Wisconsin took a break, and when they returned, Biden coincidentally came back ahead by 100k."

This is one of several viral claims that key states took a break from counting in some form on election night.

And it’s simply not true.

Election officials worked through the night in Wisconsin to tally the unprecedented numbers of mail-in ballots, which under state law they were not allowed to start counting until Election Day.

"Our municipal and county clerks have worked tirelessly throughout the night to make sure that every valid ballot is counted and reported accurately," Meagan Wolfe, the director of the state Elections Commission, said in a news conference the morning after the election.

The jump in Biden’s tally came when the central count facility in Milwaukee completed its tally of the mail-in votes around 3:30 a.m., reporting those all at once. That led to a long-predicted spike in Biden’s favor since Democrats are more likely to use vote absentee and Milwaukee is a heavily Democratic area.

CLAIM: Wisconsin "found" or "dumped" 100K ballots around 4 a.m. the morning after the election.

A chart from FiveThirtyEight.com showing how the Wisconsin race changed as results were reported sparked an array of unfounded conspiracy theories. It showed a sharp uptick in Democratic votes at around 4 a.m. on the morning after the election.

A conservative website trumpeted this as "Voter Fraud in Wisconsin." One widely shared Facebook post called it a "ballot dump," while another referred to the votes as being "found." President Donald Trump followed the same narrative when he tweeted about 9 a.m. that his lead in key states "started to magically disappear as surprise ballot dumps were counted."

These claims are ridiculous. This jump was expected and explainable.

"We are not finding ballots," Julietta Henry, director of elections for Milwaukee County, told PolitiFact National. "Ballots are being counted."

The increase in the chart simply shows when the City of Milwaukee reported its absentee ballot results. We knew well before the election that Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to vote absentee, that it takes longer to count such ballots, and that Milwaukee is a Democratic stronghold. 

So, predictably, the mail-in results from that area led to a spike in the number of Democratic votes when the Associated Press added that count -- reported all at once -- to its vote tally about 3:30 a.m.

From 3:26 to 3:44 a.m. in the Associated Press election reporting stream, the vote for former Vice President Joe Biden jumped by 149,520 (9.2% of Biden's total votes) and Trump's vote jumped by 31,803 votes (2% of his total votes). Milwaukee County accounted for most but not all of that jump.

These votes were all reported together because Milwaukee and 38 other communities used a central count location. Other communities counted absentee ballots at the polling places, and reported them along with their in-person vote totals.

The city of Green Bay reported its results in bulk shortly after. It also had a central count facility for absentee ballots.

In other words, it’s not fraud, that’s just the time officials finished counting those legitimate votes.

Claim: Says it is "sketchy as hell" that the city of Milwaukee broke 82-18 for Trump when Milwaukee County was "only 69-29."

This widely shared tweet is flat wrong and reflects a lack of knowledge of the county’s makeup.

The City of Milwaukee is a Democratic stronghold, but the county includes an array of suburbs that lean much more to the right.

The Milwaukee numbers in this tweet — which were not final at the time — are in line with how the city and county numbers broke down in 2016. Hillary Clinton posted a 77-18 margin in the City of Milwaukee, and a 65-29 margin in the county as a whole.

CLAIM: Wisconsin has more votes than people who are registered to vote. 

In various places, people took to social media to allege that the state saw more votes cast than people who were registered to vote. 

PolitiFact National rated a claim in this vein Pants on Fire.

One tweet claimed that the state recorded 101% voter turnout. Another, which has since been deleted, argued that more than 110,000 extra votes were cast beyond the number of registered voters.  That one garnered tens of thousands of retweets within an hour, and made the jump to Facebook, where it has been shared hundreds of times. An Instagram post liked thousands of times laid out the same allegation.

This is impossible — residents who are not registered to vote cannot cast a ballot. 

What’s more, Wisconsin is one of 19 states (along with the District of Columbia) that allow same-day voter registration. That means the correct comparison is eligible voters, not registered ones.

More than 3.6 million Wisconsinites were registered to vote as of Nov. 1, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. That was two days before the election.

The number of people turning out across the state topped 3.2 million, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported — the most votes ever cast in a Wisconsin election, with at least 71% of the state’s voting-age adults casting ballots. (Not quite the highest percentage-wise).

The Wisconsin Elections Commission weighed in on Twitter later in the morning, explaining that registration numbers reported by counties can be off because of same-day voter registration. 

"There are never more ballots than registered voters," the commission tweeted

Claim: In Wisconsin and other states, "the Democrats in the governor's mansions stepped in and stopped the counting while the legacy media concocted scenarios by which Biden could win."

This Facebook claim from 2:30 a.m. Nov. 4 is flat-out conspiracy nonsense.

This kind of widespread fraud would require coordination and corruption throughout government, election systems and the media nationwide. In reality an array of checks and balances within the state and local election systems — which campaign representatives from both parties observe in person — ensure votes are accurately counted and recorded.

There is no evidence anything like this has occurred, in this election or any other.

The claim also ignores the fact that election margins move around in every race as additional results come in, since different sections of each state have different levels of support for a given candidate. And this goes in both directions.

Biden had early leads in Iowa, Kansas, Montana and Ohio, but those states ended up going for Trump as more results came in. That’s not fraud, that’s simply counting all the votes.

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