The man in front of us said the line reached all the way to the building's entrance when he first arrived, and sure enough, it continued to grow as we waited.
Today is a day of firsts -- for me, but, more importantly, for the state of Wisconsin.
The first battle in the war to flip -- or maintain -- the state Senate majority will be decided today in the recall election for District 30. Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), is the first incumbent to face a general recall election this summer, as the only recall candidate whose race didn't result in a forced primary. Had Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) secured just two more signatures, today's election would have determined whether Nygren or David VanderLeest faced Hansen as the Republican contender. Since Nygren didn't make it onto the ballot, Hansen, in his third term, is challenged by a Republican activist who led the effort to recall the incumbent and carries with him a past plagued with domestic abuse allegations and failure to pay property taxes.
The recall elections sweeping the state are viewed by many as a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker's controversial "budget repair" bill that eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public employees. The six Republicans facing recalls are under fire for passing the legislation, while the three Democrats whose elections -- primaries for Sens. Jim Holperin (D-Conover) and Robert Wirch (D-Pleasant Prairie) -- are today were challenged for their decision to depart the state in an effort to deny the Senate a quorum and block Walker's cuts. The results of the Hansen-VanderLeest race could serve as an indication of what's to come in future recall elections.
As someone who grew up in District 30, I made the trek back to my hometown of Marinette to vote today. Although I've voted in every election since I became eligible, this was my first time voting in person. Attending college out of state meant that if I wanted to vote in Wisconsin, I had to use an absentee ballot.
I remember, as a child, accompanying my mom to our ward's polling place on election day. However, Marinette uses just one polling location for the entire city for special elections. When my mom and I arrived at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College shortly after 11 a.m., there was a line of about 20-25 people spilling out of the voting room. The line continued to grow, and several women behind us voiced their surprise at how busy it was.
The man in front of us said the line reached all the way to the building's entrance when he first arrived, and sure enough, it continued to grow as we waited. There were a few chairs stationed throughout the line for those who needed to rest. I immediately noticed two signs: one, a map of the city's voting wards, and the other, a set of instructions for the touchscreen voting machines. There was no mention of the new requirements imposed by Walker's controversial Voter ID bill (AB-7) -- some of which were in place today, others that will not go into effect until the next election -- until voters reached the room where they would cast their ballots.
A woman behind me seemed confused as we approached the check-in table and people in line reached for their driver's licenses.
"I have to have my ID?" she asked. A former poll worker herself, she didn't see why she would need identification when all the poll workers in our small town already knew her.
A few people explained that she didn't need it today, but she would be asked to show it. She was told that it would be OK to not show it today, but the next time she votes, she'll need to have it. When she asked, "How come?" she received a simple response: "'Cause the law changed."
Neither my mom nor I experienced any trouble at the check-in table, which we approached with our IDs ready. Signing the poll list didn't seem to add much of a delay, although the woman directly behind me encountered some trouble related to confusion about a letter in her name. Still, she figured using an ID might actually make checking in more efficient.
The ballot was a simple one, of course -- just one choice to make.
Voting sentiments varied from one voter to the next, which is to be expected in a town I consider to be politically unpredictable. In the most recent election, which was also widely viewed as a Walker referendum, the City of Marinette favored JoAnne Kloppenburg (PDF) over scandal-ridden Justice David Prosser by 253 votes; however, she lost Marinette County by 897 votes. In the fall 2010 general election, Walker defeated Tom Barrett (PDF) in Marinette by just 271 votes. The city has even flipped on its opinion of Nygren since he was first elected in 2008, and it's hard to say how the Marinette native would have fared had he made it onto the ballot for the District 30 senate seat. In 2008, while Nygren won the 89th Assembly District, he did not win (PDF) the majority of votes in his hometown. Marinette High School teacher Randy Koehn secured 593 more votes than Nygren did in Marinette in 2008; however, Nygren's 2010 victory over small business owner Bob Orwig was cemented (PDF) at both the city and county level.
"Hey, you two," I heard one woman call out as she spotted some friends. "Am I gonna cancel your votes?"
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of coming home to vote was the complete lack of attention the local newspaper paid to the election. Neither Monday's nor Tuesday's edition of the EagleHerald, the newspaper serving Marinette and the neighboring community, Menominee, Mich., contained a single local story about the recall election. There was no mention of where to vote in a special election and no warning that voters would be asked to show their IDs, not to mention no story about the candidates or the race itself. To be fair, the newspaper does have its hands full covering calls to remove Marinette's mayor from office following his recent OWI arrest.
Regardless of the lack of local news coverage, the polls were busy throughout my time there, and as I left, a poll worker said it had been busy like that all day -- not just during the lunch hour. It was refreshing to see an engaged citizenry participating in the democratic process.
While I waited in line, I ran into one of my former high school teachers and coaches, who put the experience in perspective. She told me it had taken her about 20 minutes, from start to finish, to cast her vote. But, she added, people in some countries have had to jump through far more difficult hoops than standing in line in order to have a voice in their government.