MADISON, Wis — Democrat Joe Biden narrowly won battleground state Wisconsin on Wednesday, edging out President Donald Trump in a state that was crucial to the incumbent’s victory four years ago.
The Associated Press called the race for Biden after election officials said all outstanding ballots had been counted, save for a few hundred in one township and a small number of provisional ballots around the state. The former vice president’s lead there is now so great that there is no way that the remaining votes would allow Trump to catch up.
Trump’s campaign said it planned to call for a recount, which a trailing candidate is allowed to do under state law if a race is within 1 percentage point. Statewide recounts in Wisconsin have historically changed the vote tally by only a few hundred votes. Biden leads by 0.624 percentage points out of nearly 3.3 million ballots counted.
Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager claimed there were “reports of irregularities in several counties” and pointed to a report about a printing error on up to 13,500 ballots that required them to be duplicated on Election Day so tabulation machines could count them. Trump carried the counties where that occurred by 10 points and 19 points.
Election officials had asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to allow them to fill in the ballot misprint with a black mark so the tabulation machines could read them, but the court refused. That required the ballots in Outagamie and Calumet counties to be duplicated by hand on Election Day.
By Wednesday, the ballots, duplicated under the supervision of poll watchers and the assistance of members of the Wisconsin National Guard, had been counted, said Outagamie County Clerk Lori O'Bright.
Meagan Wolfe, the state’s top elections official, did not directly address the Trump campaign’s claim of irregularities. She defended the state’s election system, noting that a recount of the 2016 presidential result showed no widespread problems and resulted in only a few hundred votes changing.
“I believe that would be the case if we had a recount again in our state. You would find that we have a really solid system here,” Wolfe said.
Even some Republicans conceded that overcoming Biden’s lead of more than 20,000 votes would be difficult.
“If it holds, 20,000 is a high hurdle,” former Republican Gov. Scott Walker tweeted. He noted that two previous statewide recounts, including of the 2016 presidential race, resulted in net changes of 300 and 131 votes.
Doug Poland, an election law attorney who has opposed Republicans in Wisconsin, said he doubted that a recount would change the margin if Biden’s lead is in the thousands or tens of thousands of votes.
“Recounts result in a couple hundred votes changing, not that that kind of margin,” he said.
The exact date when a recount would start depends on when the last of Wisconsin’s 72 counties certifies the results of the election. Counties must start that process no later than Tuesday, and they have until Nov. 17 to complete it.
Trump would have three days after the last county certifies its vote to submit a petition for a recount. That means he would have to submit a petition by Nov. 20, but typically counties complete the certification before the deadline.
The president would also have to pay the full cost of the recount. The state pays for recounts of races that are within a quarter of a percentage point. The last presidential recount, done in 2016, cost Green Party candidate Jill Stein $3.5 million.
Once the Wisconsin Elections Commission receives the petition and payment for a recount, it notifies the candidates and orders the recount to commence the following day at 9 a.m.
The county boards of canvassers for all 72 counties conduct the recount. The deadline to complete it and send the results to the state is no later than 13 days after the recount was ordered.
In the recount of the 2016 presidential race, the state elections commission ordered on Nov. 29 that the recount begin on Dec. 1. It was done on Dec. 12.
Interestingly, that year Trump supporters filed a federal lawsuit to stop the recount, arguing that the state’s recount process is unconstitutional because ballots are not treated equally in all cases. They cited the standard used in the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case that stopped the Florida recount and left George W. Bush as president. The lawsuit that year also argued that the recount risked preventing Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes from being counted.
A judge did not rule on the merits of the case, but also did not stop the recount, noting that it had almost no chance of changing the outcome of a Trump victory.
Trump supporters in 2016 also filed lawsuits seeking to head off separate recounts in Michigan and Pennsylvania before those efforts could get started. Courts stopped recounts there.
In the Wisconsin recount, Democrat Hillary Clinton gained 713 votes while Trump picked up 844, widening his lead by 131 votes. Trump won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes, a margin of 0.77%.
There were several reasons why some ballots were counted or not during the 2016 recount, said Scott McDonnel, the Dane County clerk, on Wednesday. For example, some people voted for Clinton or Trump and also wrote their names as write-in candidates. Those ballots were not counted initially but were included in the recount, he said. In a small number of cases, errors made by voters on absentee ballots were not caught in the initial screening but were in the recount, he said.
The next year, state lawmakers changed the law to require that only a candidate who is within 1 percentage point of the loser can request a recount. Stein had received just 1% of the vote but under the law as it existed at the time was able to force the recount.
Trump was ahead most of Election Day this year as votes cast Tuesday in person were counted first. After the early votes were counted, particularly 169,000 from the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee, Biden took a lead around 4 a.m. Wednesday that grew to 20,517 votes with nearly all ballots counted.
Wolfe said all the ballots were in except for up to 300 in a small township and an unknown number of provisional ballots that she expected to total fewer than 1,000.
“There are no dark corners or locked doors on elections,” Wolfe said. “Anybody was free to watch those processes yesterday.”
Razor-thin presidential races have become the norm in Wisconsin, with three of the past five presidential elections in the state decided by less than a percentage point. In the closest of those races, Al Gore won Wisconsin in 2000 by 5,708 votes over George W. Bush, a difference of just 0.22%.
Trump, in 2016, was the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since 1984. Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton’s totals from 2016 in urban areas while Trump did better in small towns and rural areas than he did four years ago.
A record-high 1.9 million ballots were cast before Election Day. Then more than 1 million people voted in person Tuesday, despite surging coronavirus cases in Wisconsin that also drove the absentee voting. The total votes were expected to break the record high turnout of the 2012 election.
Overall turnout looked to be nearly 3.3 million, the highest ever in Wisconsin. The previous high was slightly over 3 million in 2012. Turnout was roughly 72% of the voting-age population, the highest since 2004, when it was 73%.
Associated Press Writer Michael Tarm in Chicago and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.