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Most Milwaukee voters stayed home Tuesday - a closer look at the city's mayoral turnout

TMJ4's Chief Political Reporter Charles Benson looks at the primary results.
Posted at 3:37 PM, Feb 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 16:37:42-05

MILWAUKEE — Every few years, candidates running for public office are famous for predictably saying, "This is the most important election of our life time."

Elections are important, but are they always the most important every four years? One could easily make the argument that the 2022 Milwaukee Mayoral Primary was the most important in a generation.

It was the first time in 18 years Milwaukee had an open Mayoral Primary. It was made possible by former mayor Tom Barrett who resigned last year to become Ambassador to Luxembourg.

The city has elected three mayors in the last 60 years. Think about that. There's not a lot of turnover at city hall when it comes to the Mayor's office. Henry Maier was Milwaukee's longest serving from 1960-1988. John Norquist held the job from 1988-2004 and Barrett was elected five times starting in 2004.

Milwaukee is certainly at a cross roads when it comes to the mayor's race. The city has never elected a woman or an African American for mayor - five of the seven candidates would make history if elected.

So what happened on February 15? Was there a wave of motivated voters? The primary results tell an underwhelming story.

Milwaukee is a city of about 580,000 residents. About 425,000 are old enough to vote and 279,000 were registered to vote in Tuesday's election. The Milwaukee Election Commission reports 61,743 ballots were cast in Tuesday's primary. That's a lower voter turnout than three out of the last four contested mayoral primary elections.

But not all primaries are created equal. In 2004, when 10 candidates were running to replace John Norquist, 137,400 primary ballots were cast. But there were two other big ticket races on the ballot that day, a high profile Democratic presidential primary and a contested County Executive race.

In 2016, Bob Donovan captured second place to take on Barrett when 66,000 voters turnout for that primary. But, there was also a state wide Supreme Court race on the ballot to bring out voters that day.

Then in February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic would change the political landscape, 67,400 city residents voted in the primary that had state Senator Lena Taylor coming in second to challenge Mayor Barrett.

2020 was also the year of the absentee ballot. A record number of people in Milwaukee voted by absentee ballot in the presidential election, roughly 169,000 out 247,679 ballots cast for Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

But in Tuesday's primary, the predominate method of voting was in person on Election Day, 24,000 voted absentee.

Add it all up and acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson was the top vote-getter in Tuesday's primary with 42% of the vote. Former Alderman Donovan came in second with 22% of the vote. The two will face off on April 5.

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