Milwaukee, Wis. — As the polls closed, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Central, I was an observer at an elementary school in Ward 177, a blue-collar area, just a few steps from Democrat Tom Barrett’s campaign office on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The lines were strong for the first hour, but during the last hour, things began to fizzle. Outside, there were a couple of college-age men making $25 an hour to canvass, but even that pair — two fraternity types — were unethusiastic. “I’m not going to Barrett’s party,” one told me. He was going to spend his money on beer and gas for his Hyundai. He’s made $200 a day for the past two weeks, he said, and now it’s time to party. At 8 p.m., he put his campaign sheets in his folder and walked to his car.
Inside the school’s gymnasium, it was quiet chaos. Nearly half of the arriving voters were not registered. Now, same-day registration is legal in Wisconsin, so that wasn’t a surprise. But what was surreal was watching the unregistered people sit down at the plastic folding table and pull out evey kind of identification you can imagine — crumpled cable bills, old unemployment checks, etc.
There was also a heated exchange between Peter Zelchenko, an Obama-supporting election observer, and Percy Dorsey, the election official at the site. Zelchenko was frustrated with Dorsey for keeping everyone in one line. To speed things up, Zelchencko wanted it to be split into two lines. At one point, when the line was 15 deep, Zelchenko approached Dorsey with another complaint. “Please stay over there!” Dorsey said, his voice rising. The two eyed each other angrily but kept their distance.
“I’m from Chicago,” Zelchenko told me. “I was sent up here, supporting the Obama campaign, to watch for voter disenfranchisement.” To put it mildly, Dorsey didn’t enjoy the observations from Zelchenko, who was watching the poll site all day. “I called my people after he wouldn’t listen to me,” Zelchenko said. “He was yelling at me during the afternoon.”
By 8 p.m., I had seen enough. There was a lot of eyebrow-raising registrations, but as a young mother told me, that’s how things always are in Milwaukee on Election Day. Perhaps. But today at least, the biggest takeaway from this polling site was the Zelchenko spat, the hardly packed gym, and the college guys who were there for the money, not for the politics. Obama supporters clearly put a lot of sweat into this race, but in the end, the outsiders from Chicago and elsewhere couldn’t swing it their way — even in Milwaukee.