On a cool, cloudy autumn day near the end of a frenetic presidential campaign, voters across Wisconsin headed from their homes and offices to the polls for early, in-person absentee voting.
From Milwaukee to Madison, Wauwatosa to Wausau, there was a sense of anticipation Tuesday as citizens cast ballots in a pivotal battleground state that could ultimately determine the winner between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.
And there was also a premium placed on remaining safe during a pandemic, with social distancing enforced and plenty of hand sanitizer at the polls.
“You wouldn’t mind wearing a mask if you’ve been through what I’ve been,” said Diane Viverette, who came down with COVID-19 in the spring and was hospitalized.
She and her son Horthy Viverette went to several early voting sites in Milwaukee before they found one without a long line at Clinton Rose Senior Center on North King Drive.
There were steady lines at several busy polling places across the state and steely determination to cast ballots that will be stored and then opened on Election Day.
LIVE UPDATES:Early voting in Wisconsin
Ballots have also poured in by mail, with about 916,000 of them returned to clerks. The Wisconsin Elections Commission estimates 60% to 80% of ballots will be cast by mail.
But for some, there’s nothing like going to the polls.
Matt Gunter was among the Neenah residents standing in line outside City Hall shortly after in-person absentee voting began at 7:30 a.m. With social distancing, the line was nearly a block long.
“There’s something powerful about doing it in person,” he said. “I decided to come early because I don’t have any idea how crazy it’s going to be on the third (of November). The line is long enough this morning, but it’s actually encouraging to see folks out and voting.”
In nearby Fox Crossing, Connie Bentley cast a vote for President Trump.
“Look what he has done for us so far, more than any of the other presidents in 30 years,” she said. “Our economy is good. Our jobs are good. He lowered our taxes. I think he actually cares for us.”
Bias Chides of Milwaukee, who came to the United States from Mexico when he was 17 and received his citizenship in 2008, was voting in his third presidential race and casting his ballot for Biden.
Chides, now 68, said he does not feel the president has interest in issues that affect the Latino community.
“He doesn’t know how to show us respect,” he said.
At Brookfield City Hall, where only 13 people were allowed inside the building at any time, lines snaked out onto the pavement.
City of Brookfield Clerk Kelly Michaels said she’s finding that many voters are coming in to have staff cancel their mail-in absentee ballot, so they can vote absentee in person. She said this added time to the entire process.
“Either way you’re putting an absentee ballot in an envelope that’s going to get delivered to central count,” she said.
There were early morning lines down the hallway outside the Menomonee Falls Village Hall building. Village Manager Mark Fitzgerald said there was about a 45-minute wait for people throughout much of the day.
“We expected this,” Fitzgerald said.
Voting was brisk at Wauwatosa City Hall, where election workers wore masks and worked behind Plexiglas.
“I do encourage people, if you’re not quite sure, if you’re new to the process, that early voting is a way for our clerks to serve as your witness and just make sure that you filled out your ballot properly,” said Eva Ennamorato, communications specialist for the city of Wauwatosa.
At the Hawthorne Library location in Madison, there were about 35 people in line at 12:50 p.m. Blue plastic chairs, provided by election officials, were placed throughout the line for voters to sit in.
In the village of Mukwonago, the first day of early voting drew some anxious voters — not all of whom realized they were essentially there to cast absentee ballots in person.
“We are doing great,” Village Clerk Dykstra said. “We had a line of about 20 people at 8 a.m. and as we were setting up people began knocking on doors, even with the notices posted that we open at 8 a.m.”
Milwaukee declares itself ready
In Milwaukee, officials were confident they could handle whatever crush of voters showed up at the polls.
VOTER GUIDE:How to vote and what to know about the ballot
Common Council President Cavalier Johnson declared the Midtown early voting site the “reigning defending champion for early votes being cast in the city of Milwaukee.”
Behind Johnson, in whose district the site is located, stretched a line of voters waiting to cast their ballots.
“Early voting provides access to voting for citizens that historically have been presented with barriers to casting a ballot,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said. “We are talking about working families, people working multiple jobs, students, parents with limited child care options and seniors with limited transportation options.”
The city’s Election Commission and its Health Department have been working together to hold the election during the pandemic, he said. The steps the city is taking mean voters “do not have to make a choice between their health and their fundamental democratic right to vote.”
He said while three early voting sites were used in the 2016 election, there are 14 this year.
Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg said she wasn’t surprised by the lines. But she added the city will be adding staff and markers to ensure social distancing in the lines stretching outside the early voting locations.
The city has seen more than a third of its registered voters request absentee ballots by mail, but until early voting really gets underway, she said, the city won’t know whether it is breaking any voter turnout records.
“I’m very hopeful,” she said, adding that in September more than 38,000 voter registrations were submitted following a mailer sent out by the city to encourage voters to register in advance.
The city has reached 315,000 registered voters, she said.
Barrett said the city will be adding to its website Tuesday or Wednesday a daily compilation of absentee ballots requested and returned.
Voters struggling to get a valid ID for voting should contact the city’s Election Commission or the Wisconsin Elections Commission for assistance with an ID petition process, Woodall-Vogg said.
The city has recruited and trained more than 4,000 poll workers for Nov. 3, many of them younger people, she said. The goal was 2,400.
Meg Jones, Talis Shelbourne, Sarah Volpenhein, Evan Casey, Cathy Kozlowicz, Jim Riccioli, Nuha Dolby and Duke Behnke of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin contributed to this report.