Wisconsin recall election: Why voters can't wait for it to end

The Wisconsin recall election is leaving many voters with a bitter taste, regardless of whom they supported. They see their state as tarnished, taxpayers' money as wasted, or divides as deepened. 

Morry Gash/AP
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker waits in line to vote Tuesday, in Wauwatosa, Wis. Walker faces Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in a special recall election.

For many Wisconsin voters, heading to the polling booth Tuesday for the historic recall election for governor was a bit like heading to the dentist: They didn’t want to be there, wanted it to be over as soon as possible, and didn’t want to return anytime soon.

“Just appalling,” says Cindy Sheeran, a self-described housewife, as she left a municipal building where she voted in this southeastern Wisconsin town. “I am glad it’s over with. It made the whole state look bad. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen again.”

No matter which candidate got their support – incumbent Gov. Scott Walker (R) or Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) – many voters interviewed on Election Day said the recall has taken a toll on their state. Some complained that it wasted millions of taxpayer dollars; others said it created bitterness in their communities, pitting neighbor against neighbor. Some, like George Zarovy, an unemployed architect, said they are “amazed” that they live in a state where such an election was even needed, no less that it polarized so many for nearly 16 months.

“It’s been a rather tumultuous experience. When it’s finally over with, I hope we can talk to each other civilly again,” says Mr. Zarovy, whose vote went to Mayor Barrett. “How can so many people be of like mind and, at the same time, be of opposite?”

Even before the primary in early May, polls showed Governor Walker leading any prospective challenger by a few percentage points. That never changed. In the latest poll, released late Sunday by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C., Walker was leading Barrett 50 percent to 47 percent.

The dead heat of recent months is expected to result in an election that breaks state records for voter turnout. State election officials say they expect about 65 percent of eligible voters to show up Tuesday; the average turnout in a Wisconsin midterm election is 47 percent, and the state’s previous record was 52 percent for a nonpresidential election, in 1962.

In addition to the governor’s race, the recall ballot asks Wisconsinites to consider ousting the lieutenant governor and four state senators, all Republicans. The Senate race is crucial: It will determine which party controls the state Senate through late fall.

Many voters who supported Walker Tuesday said their decision was not necessarily because they fully support his budget reforms, which included curbing collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions, or because they believe he is untarnished as a candidate. Instead, they said Walker got their vote because they feel a need to send a message about the inherent unfairness of the recall process itself.

“It’s money that didn’t need to be spent. For what? Nobody’s going to like whatever everybody does,” says Chris Carie, an insurance appraiser.

Standing outside the village hall in Union Grove, Wis., Lee LaMeer, who is self-employed, described the recall as “crazy” and says it was “a relief” to end it by voting.

“There was so much mud-slinging; it’s time to get it over with and move forward,” Mr. LaMeer says.

For that to happen, Barrett supporters argued that the recall was a necessity. Yet even they agreed that neither candidate, nor their state, will emerge unscathed.

“I’m kind of sick of it. It became one huge smear campaign. I hoped they would act more like adults,” says Christine, a Barrett backer and a Target worker in Union Grove, Wis., who asked to withhold her last name because of privacy concerns. She says that despite her aversion toward the whole process, she voted because “nothing will change it if you stay at home and do nothing.”

Groups tasked with watching polls to ensure voter rights and to report any voter fraud were out in force on Tuesday. True the Vote, an organization based in Houston that is affiliated with the tea party movement, announced it is sending “hundreds” of volunteers trained to observe elections. Joining them at polling places are volunteers from the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is also manning a hot line for citizens to report polling place irregularities. According to ACLU communications director Stacy Harbaugh, the hot line had received 594 calls by early afternoon.

“There’s a diverse spectrum of [poll watchers], which are partisan and nonpartisan. [Turnout is] going to be historic,” Ms. Harbaugh says.

Poll surveillance is also expected from representatives from the US Justice Department and the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office.

Many worry that the race may be too close to call, which will result in a recount that could keep state leadership in flux. Wisconsin election officials say it would take another two weeks for a potential recount to start – and that counting could last more than a month.

Outside the public library in Racine, Wis., Ellen Billingham says she worries that the losing side “is not going to take no for an answer,” which threatens to create more conflict. “It’s just tedious. Let’s just get it over with and get back to solving more important issues.”

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