Election Process

Editor’s note: Wisconsin election law may be changing. As of late March 2018, there are proposals floating around the legislature to change the law regarding Special Elections, but so far they remain only proposals. Special Elections are held to replace a member of the state legislature if that legislator leaves the seat or passes away. Right now there are two open seats in the legislature because one member of the Assembly and one from the Senate resigned their seats to take a job with Governor Scott Walker’s administration. Walker’s refusal to hold special elections to replace those two members of the legislature has resulted in a judge’s ruling forcing Walker to schedule the elections, but Republicans may seek to have that ruling overturned. We’ll update this page immediately if there are actual changes in the state’s election law(s).

Wisconsin generally has two elections every year, a Spring election and a Fall election.  But then the complications start: each of these “General” Elections in spring and fall can be, and most often are, preceded by a “Primary” Election, held 60 days prior to the General Election.  The Governor, in some instances, can call for special elections to fill certain vacancies; local units of government (towns, villages, cities, and school boards) hold their elections at the time of the Spring Election, but may also set referenda elections at any time, subject to appropriate notice and certain restrictions on timing.

One quick way to get up to speed on elections is to check the website to get information about which elections are coming up, the filing deadlines for the election, and all the relevant details.

In January of 2008, Wisconsin created the Government Accountability Board to oversee all statewide elections.  However, in December of 2015 Governor Walker signed into law a bill which abolished the Government Accountability Board and replaced it with two commissions, which began operation on June 30, 2016.  Both the Wisconsin Elections Commission and the Wisconsin Ethics Commission now consist of political appointees.  At their new website you will find a record of all their meetings, names of the members of the Board and their staff, along with their direct phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

There is also a section of the site for current news releases, and a general outline of rules about elections and voting equipment which will be particularly useful to you as a reporter.

Another handy reporter’s tool on the website is easy access to the records for every election and its results, for both spring and fall elections, for the past several years.  And there’s a section of the site devoted to voter statistics, broken down by county, municipality, age, and so on, which may even be a springboard for story ideas.

Campaign finance has been a hot topic for the last several election cycles, and at the Accountability Board’s website you can find a section with links to candidate filings, candidate reports, and the contribution limits for Wisconsin elections.

Many reporters have questions about access to polling places on election day – where you can be; who you can talk to; what you can photograph, and so on.  The best two sources for information on this are your district media coordinator, and your county clerk’s office.

For election-night reporting purposes, many Wisconsin counties have a special section of their website where election tallies are posted nearly real-time so you can check the results of elections, referenda, or propositions.