Scenes and dispatches as Wisconsin went to the polls on Nov. 3

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Nora Eckert / Wisconsin Watch

Zipporah Turnbull began working as a field organizer for Common Ground, a nonpartisan advocacy group, in October. The 23-year-old Milwaukee resident says she is tired of nonprofits dropping in and out of her community, and she values the chance to forge relationships with her neighbors. Inspiring her voting rights work: an internship with the Selma Center for Nonviolence in Selma, Alabama. “I always felt growing up that I had a disconnect from politics,” Turnball says, adding that she now views voting as “a sign of taking back power.”

Wisconsin Watch is a nonprofit newsroom that focuses on government integrity and quality of life issues, and we always provide our news for free.

Wisconsin voters headed to the polls today to help pick the country’s next president — and weigh in on races for the Wisconsin Legislature, county district attorneys and the U.S. House, capping an extraordinary election transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

A large swath of the electorate already cast their votes before the polls opened at 7 a.m., including those seeking to minimize their risk of exposure to the virus.  

As of Tuesday morning, more than 93% of more than 2 million absentee ballots sent out had been returned, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Wisconsin is among the few states that ban poll workers from processing absentee ballots until Election Day, meaning clerks expect to be counting them at least into Wednesday.

Even with polls open for early voting and drop boxes available in cities across Wisconsin, some voters still prefer to make their voices heard on Election Day itself.

Below are scenes and dispatches from our reporters and partner newsrooms, which will be updated live throughout the day.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:45 p.m. on Tuesday, November 3, 2o2o.

Statewide updates:

As local clerks continued to tally votes into Tuesday evening, Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe assured voters: “If unofficial results aren’t available until tomorrow morning, it doesn’t mean anything went wrong.” Speaking at a press briefing, she added: “Our election inspectors, they’re going to continue to value accuracy over speed.”

— Vanessa Swales, Wisconsin Watch

Volunteers from the spiritual group Nuns and Nones doled out candy and blessings to voters at polling places in Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee. Paige Ingram said the group wanted to offer relief during a tense time.  “It’s not like polling places have an inherently positive connotation,” Ingram said. But with the nuns around? “People feel like there’s a little extra blessing in this place.”

Sister Eileen Brynda said the group wanted “to let (people) know that we support their vote and we support them.”

— Nora Eckert, Wisconsin Watch

Nora Eckert / Wisconsin Watch

Nuns and Nones doled out candy and blessings to voters at polling places in Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee on Election Day.

Speaking in an early afternoon press conference, Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator,  reported that the election “continues to run smoothly” — with no reports of threats to specific polling sites or sites running short on workers.

— Vanessa Swales, Wisconsin Watch

From in and around Milwaukee:

“We had a safe voting experience and very minimal issues, and it was a very good day here in the city of Milwaukee for voting,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission. 

About 169,000 absentee ballots were cast in Milwaukee, roughly two-thirds of which were processed as of 8 p.m. Woodall-Vogg expected counting to last until about 4 a.m.

— Sharon McGowan, Wisconsin Watch

Voters at Milwaukee’s Gwen T. Jackson Early Childhood and Elementary School have seen few if any lines throughout the day, but activity has remained steady, said chief inspector Darlene LaGrant. As of 5:20 p.m., 445 ballots had been cast, with about 10 first-time voters registering on the spot, she estimated.

After casting her ballot, Carolyn Dillard, 52, a Milwaukee Public Schools secretary, called her “I voted” sticker a “complaining” sticker, meaning that people who don’t vote have not earned their right to complain. 

She never considered early voting. Participation on Election Day “makes me feel more active,” she said. 

— Anya van Wagtendonk, Wisconsin Watch

Rutilia Ornelas (on right), 65, became an American citizen on Monday after spending 45 years living in the country — 26 of them in Milwaukee. She voted for the first time before noon on Tuesday. Speaking through an interpreter, Ornelas called it an “unexpected surprise” to gain citizenship just in time to vote, making her feel “very emotional.” 

Said Paola Espinoza, Ornelas’ daughter: “I’m very proud of her…she accomplished what she’s wanted to since a long time.”

— Anya van Wagtendonk, Wisconsin Watch

At the Hayes Bilingual Elementary School on Milwaukee’s south side (on left), chief inspector Joe Dannecker said his polling site was combined with another nearby after two workers at the other site came down with COVID-19. Dannecker joked that he, his wife Mary and their two adult children decided to spend more time together on the couple’s 30th anniversary — by working at the Hayes site.

Caroline Dannecker, 26, said she also worked during early voting and registered “dozens” of first-time voters, most over the age of 40. That was a marked difference from her experience registering first-time voters in 2018, when most were much younger.

This year “people feel more passionate,” she said. 

— Anya van Wagtendonk, Wisconsin Watch

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told reporters Tuesday morning that a record-shattering 165,269 people in the city had voted early — more than triple the number from 2016.

“We could not have a better day to get out and vote,” Barrett said, adding, “Every vote is going to be significant.”

Machines buzzed and clicked loudly throughout the City of Milwaukee’s Central Count facility as hundreds of workers opened absentee ballots and fed them into the counters Tuesday morning. Stacked boxes of ballots kept workers socially distant. Election observers milled about the hall, some taking notes. The facility is livestreaming its work. You can watch here.

Nora Eckert / Wisconsin Watch

Jennifer O’Hear, lead organizer and executive director of Common Ground is seen in Milwaukee on Election Day.

Jennifer O’Hear, lead organizer and executive director of Common Ground, a local nonpartisan advocacy group, fielded messages from organizers at various polling places across Milwaukee. 

While reviewing a deluge of texts from her colleagues, she got a call regarding a voter who was turned away for not bringing in the absentee ballot she had received, but not sent in, when choosing to instead vote in person. 

 “That’s absolutely incorrect,” O’Hear told her colleague on the call. After a call to an attorney, the polling worker reportedly allowed the woman to vote. O’Hear sighed in relief.

It was one of the many voter issues she’d fielded on Election Day, and it was just 8:30 a.m.

— Nora Eckert, Wisconsin Watch

From Kenosha:

From Madison:

From Stevens Point:

From in and around Green Bay:

Green Bay Police Chief Andrew Smith said mid-Tuesday that voting was proceeding smoothly but warned of social media posts falsely claiming the city had surreptitiously removed voting machines from polling places — claims that could lead voters to to mistakenly believe they were closed. 

Green Bay planned weeks ago to move its central ballot counting location from City Hall to the KI Convention Center, but social media posts instead claimed the city was suddenly pulling voting machines from polling places. 

“That’s baloney,” Smith said in a press conference recorded by WBAY-TV.  “We were planning on (moving the central count) a long time ago. That was announced publicly on the website.”

Smith said the move to the KI Center offers more room for the workers tabulating votes. The city is livestreaming the count inside the center, and Smith noted poll watchers from both major parties were observing the count. Plainclothes police officers were also present. 

“Don’t believe everything you read on social media,” Smith said. “If you have a question give the city clerk a call. If you have a problem give the police department a call. If it’s an emergency call 911.”

— Bram Sable-Smith and Howard Hardee, Wisconsin Watch

From the Fox River Valley:

Poll workers in the Fox River Valley face an added burden: remaking as many as 13,500 completed absentee ballots by hand because of a tiny printing flaw that prevents tabulating machines from reading them. 

It’s a scratch no wider than a fingernail, but it is creating headaches for clerks in 22 municipalities in Outagamie and Calumet counties. The small tick in the black boxes at the bottom of these ballots causes machines to spit them back out with an “error” message. 

Election workers discovered the problem in time to correct early in-person and Election Day ballots — but only after thousands of absentee ballots were mailed to voters. 

At Appleton’s Mount Olive Evangelical Lutheran School polling site, chief inspector Sue Siebers waited to start processing absentee ballots until about four hours into the day. Before then, lines were out the door, with wait times creeping up to an hour and a half, she said.

“I didn’t feel right doing (the absentee ballots) until the line was in the door,” she said, adding that her polling place had around 100 ballots with the error. 

When Appleton’s First English Lutheran Church polling site became busy early Tuesday, five members of the National Guard stepped in. They helped copy about 100 ballots with printing flaws. 

In Grand Chute, the laborious process of copying votes from about 2,000 ballots over to new ballots was nearly completed by late afternoon. Unlike Appleton, the town centralized its ballot counting. Poll worker Maureen Armstrong — dressed as Wonder Woman to lighten the mood — said it took about 3 minutes per ballot, with two people working on each one. 

“It breaks my heart a little bit” to think of the time spent fixing ballots, Armstrong said. But she was impressed by the level of accountability built into each step of the process. “I got a lot of confidence from today.”

Nora Eckert / Wisconsin Watch

Maureen Armstrong, a 33-year old Grand Chute resident, signed up to be an election worker because she wanted to allow older and more vulnerable workers stay home and protect themselves from Covid-19.

— Nora Eckert, Wisconsin Watch

From Wausau:

From Reedsburg:

From Wisconsin Rapids:

Did you encounter problems at the polls, or would you like to share your voting experience — or a polling place selfie — with us? Email us at tips@wisconsinwatch.org.

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