- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke have been saying for weeks that turnout will be the key to victory in Tuesday’s election. The number of absentee ballots cast so far is up from four years ago, but which candidate will benefit most is unclear, political analysts said.

Voters had cast 240,308 absentee ballots by mail or in-person as of early Friday morning, according to state election officials. That’s about 10,000 more absentee ballots than voters cast in the November 2010 gubernatorial election that saw Walker defeat Democrat Tom Barrett.

The deadline for requesting absentee ballots by mail was the end of the day Thursday. About 22,400 ballots hadn’t been returned to local clerks as of Friday morning, said Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, which oversees state elections. Those ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday and in municipal clerks’ offices by 4 p.m. Nov. 7 to count. Early in-person voting ended Friday.

The absentee turnout tends to favor Walker, who holds a 7-point lead over Burke among likely voters according to the latest Marquette Law School poll, said University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Ken Mayer. Absentee voters tend to be richer, more educated and more engaged, which favors Republicans.

But the absentee numbers are only one piece of the puzzle. GAB officials predict at total of 2.5 million people will vote in the election, through absentee ballots or showing up at the polls on Election Day. That would equate to 56.5 percent of the state’s voting-age population and set a new turnout record for a gubernatorial election, surpassing the 52.4 percent mark set in 1962. Turnout for the last two presidential elections, which are held in years without a governor’s race, has been around 70 percent.

Conventional wisdom says the larger physical turnout favors Burke - more voters means more poor, less-educated people who tend to support Democrats, said Mike Wagner, a UW-Madison journalism professor who specializes in politics and elections. But Walker’s lead among likely voters skews things, he said.

“According to the Marquette poll, more Republicans are going to vote than Democrats,” Wagner said. “It’s hard to be confident in who (the turnout numbers) give the edge to. There’s a lot of evidence that goes in both directions.”

A spokeswoman for Walker’s campaign responded to a message seeking comment with a statement saying she’s confident voters will choose Walker’s “positive vision for the future rather than Mary Burke’s divisive, negative, and aggressive rhetoric.”

Burke spokesman Joe Zepecki said the turnout is encouraging and the growing numbers bode well for her.

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