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Graph shows thousands of ballots reported at once, overwhelmingly for Biden

November 4, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: Graph shows that over 100,000 votes for Joe Biden in Wisconsin “came out of nowhere.” 

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. Milwaukee didn’t finish counting absentee ballots until 3 a.m. The outstanding ballots at that point -- including 169,000 from Milwaukee -- overwhelmingly broke for the Democrat. Based on the counting of in-person votes, President Donald Trump initially had the lead in Wisconsin on election night, but once all the votes were counted, Biden picked up the win. The counting of those outstanding ballots shows up as a big surge in the tally, but those votes didn’t come “out of nowhere.”


THE FACTS: Dozens of social media posts fixated on a graph from FiveThirtyEight early Wednesday showing total presidential votes for each party at that point. There was a sharp uptick in votes for Biden in Wisconsin. Social media posts claimed that the shift in the graph was evidence of “fraud.”

“I mean LOOK at this graph for Wisconsin. I’ll zoom in just so you can see the part where Biden votes came out of NOWHERE,” one Twitter user posted on Nov. 4. The tweet had over 6,000 retweets.

Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight, addressed concerns over the graph on the FiveThirtyEight website.

“We are getting very close to having some results from Wisconsin, and I’m seeing a lot of questions like this one, which was directed to the Wisconsin Elections Commission on Twitter,” she said Wednesday morning. “That weird-looking bump in the Wisconsin results is what happened when 170,000 absentee votes from the city of Milwaukee poured in all at once. It’s not nefarious. It’s just counting.” 

Most of Wisconsin’s largest cities, including Milwaukee and Green Bay, count absentee ballots in one centralized location. The count of Milwaukee’s absentee ballots, for example, began Tuesday morning and was live-streamed for people to view throughout the day on YouTube. But Wisconsin law requires that the results of those absentee votes be reported all at once, Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe explained Wednesday.

“With that you’re going to get the result sets all as one, with all the absentees,” Wolfe said when asked about the overnight spike in vote totals.

According to The Associated Press, in Milwaukee, the state’s most populous area, the city didn’t finish counting its roughly 169,000 absentees until around 3 a.m. When they did, Milwaukee police escorted the city’s elections director from a central counting location to the county courthouse to deliver thumb drives with the data, and it was immediately folded into the overall count. 


On Wednesday afternoon, The Associated Press declared Biden the winner in Wisconsin after the state said all outstanding ballots had been counted. Trump’s campaign has called for a recount. 


This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: