A hard-fought, down-to-the-wire presidential race and a bitter battle for a U.S. Senate seat brought out near-record numbers of Wisconsin voters Tuesday on a cold, wet election day.
Late in the day, it appeared more than 70 percent of Wisconsin's 4.4 million eligible voters would cast ballots, according to Kevin Kennedy, who heads the state Government Accountability Board. That would place the day's voting among the top four turnouts for presidential elections in Wisconsin history. It would surpass the 2008 presidential election turnout of 2.9 million voters, or 69.2 percent of eligible voters, and come in just behind turnouts of 72.9 percent in 2004 and 73 percent in 1960.
"It's just very busy," Kennedy said late Tuesday afternoon. He pointed especially to Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha, which he described as being "swamped," with poll officials there expressing concern about possibly running out of ballots.
Polls also were busy in Madison. As of 4 p.m., the Madison city clerk's office had counted 108,156 votes, including absentee ballots, about 54 percent of the city's registered voters — a different way to measure turnout. In some polling places, such as Ward 71 on the Far East Side, turnout had exceeded 2008 numbers by mid-afternoon.
In Dane County, Clerk Karen Peters said turnout late Tuesday appeared to be headed for about 78 percent of the total 359,241 registered voters. That would beat the 2008 turnout of 76 percent, she added, and come close to 2004's 78.8 percent.
Even with the high numbers, the state seemed to be relatively free of some of the voting glitches and irregularities seen in other states. Kennedy said there were "hardly any" problems related to issues such as voter registration and identification.
Some Madison wards reported equipment problems, such as jammed ballots. Around 11 a.m. at the Madison Ice Arena on the city's West Side, with nearly 100 people in line to vote, the ballot scanner malfunctioned. After about 40 minutes, the machine was replaced. It was the second machine in the city that needed attention Tuesday.
But mostly, voters just had to face lines of other voters, though no waits were very long. At Madison's Ward 49 in the Fresh Food Market, voting was strong and steady all day, said David Fischer, the polling place's chief inspector.
Many of the students who voted at the site were voting in their first election. Frank Jablonski, an election observer at the polling place, said it was an inspiring sight.
"They would walk up to the scanner with their ballots and some were almost scared to feed their ballots in," said Jablonski. "It was kind of touching to see how seriously they took it all."
But it would be hard to find a more inspiring tale of voting chutzpa than that of John S. Campbell, who went to his Ward 71 polling place in the Resilience Research Center late in the afternoon. Upon reaching the front of the line, Campbell was informed he already had voted absentee.
This perplexed Campbell — who knew with certainty he hadn't voted absentee — until he glanced at the voter roll and noticed a John R. Campbell near his name and listed as living just a block away from him on his same street, Seven Nations Drive. John S. had no idea John R. existed. So he hightailed it to John R.'s house, knocked on the door, introduced himself, and the two solved the mystery. John R. had indeed voted absentee, but his ballot had been recorded mistakenly under John S.'s name.
John R. kindly accompanied John S. back to the polling place where the mess was untangled, John S. was handed his ballot, and democracy was served.
"I'm actually not that much of a political person," said John S. "I wanted to vote. But only once."
State Journal reporters Matthew DeFour, Nico Savidge, Samara Kalk and Rob Schultz contributed to this report.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The total number of eligible voters in Wisconsin was corrected to 4.4 million.]