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Voters head to polls early in Wisconsin

Wisconsin clerks opened their doors to early voters on Oct. 20, giving people a chance to avoid Election Day lines and allowing partisans a window to rally supporters to vote in hopes of swinging the neck-in-neck race between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke.

Wisconsin law requires municipal clerks to offer in-person early voting from the third Monday preceding an election through the Friday before the election. They can hold voting from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays but can set their own hours within those limits. Clerks who don’t have regular office hours must be available via appointment. The election itself is set for Nov. 4.

Wisconsin voters can cast absentee ballots by mail also but showing up early in person has grown more popular over the last few elections and could play a crucial role in the Walker-Burke race. A Marquette University Law School poll released last week showed the candidates dead-even.

Higher turnout typically tends to favor Democrats. Party spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said volunteers are calling people and knocking on doors to encourage them to vote early. Burke said her campaign also would emphasize getting supporters to vote early through door-to-door visits, phone calls and social media.

Walker signed a bill earlier this year imposing the 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. limitations and barring early in-person voting on weekends.

Before the bill was introduced, state law allowed early in-person voting from the third Monday to 5 p.m. or the close of business, whichever was later, on the Friday before the election. That allowed clerks to stay open late into the evenings and on the last pre-election weekend.

Democrats decried the GOP measure as an attempt to tamp down turnout in heavily Democratic cities such as Milwaukee and Madison, which held extended hours during the 2012 presidential election.

However, with the most recent Marquette Law School poll showing Walker and Burke tied, Republicans are trying to get their base supporters out early as well. Wisconsin GOP Executive Director Joe Fadness said his party has been sending out mailers and making phone calls to voters explaining how convenient early voting is. Walker said his campaign will make an “aggressive” effort to get people out early, saying he thinks turnout will be the deciding factor in the race.

Neil V. Albrecht, the executive director of the Milwaukee City Election Commission, which administers elections in the state’s largest city in lieu of the municipal clerk, said he was disappointed that weekend early voting is off the table. He noted that more than 5,000 people voted early on the weekend before the 2012 election. Voting laws should encourage participation, he said.

His office will be open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday to accept what he anticipates could be as many as 30,000 early voters, he said.

Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said her office will remain open the maximum amount of hours as well. Her workers saw nearly 19,000 early voters during the 2012 election, she said, and she’s expecting about 10,000 this time around. Without weekend hours, her employees will have to move people through faster than in previous years, she said.

Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison contributed to this report.

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