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WATCH NOW: La Crosse voters turn out at polls, Election Defenders answer questions
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WATCH NOW: La Crosse voters turn out at polls, Election Defenders answer questions

From the COLLECTION: Catch up with area election results series
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Steady streams of voters flowed in and out of La Crosse polling places on Tuesday, most with masks and determination to cast their ballots in one of the most anticipated elections in recent memory.

This Election Day has been built up by a lot of uncertainty and potential barriers, from the pandemic to concerns over absentee ballots and potential voter intimidation, it was unclear what the day might bring.

Lines were reported at several polling sites in the city of La Crosse just before polls opened at 7 a.m., but most of them quickly subsided, and throughout the morning voters moved in and out of polling places rhythmically.

“Turnout has been really good,” La Crosse County Clerk Ginny Dankmeyer told the Tribune at press time on Tuesday. “It hasn’t necessarily been lines out the door, but it’s been steady all day where there’s always been voters there voting.”

In La Crosse County, 42,467 absentee ballots were already cast before polls opened on Tuesday, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which is nearly double the 21,886 that voted absentee in 2016, and 66% of the overall turnout from 2016.

Officials said that early reporting shows that overall turnout may surpass previous years.

“Right now it’s looking that way. Obviously things can change this afternoon or this evening,” Dankmeyer said. “It’s projecting it may break how many ballots we had in 2016.”

Many of those voting in-person on Tuesday in La Crosse said they felt safe going to the polls despite concerns of the virus, some saying they chose to wait until Election Day because of tradition and because they knew they weren’t at risk of severe disease.

“I just felt I was able to come vote in person, so why not?,” said Jill Miley, 25, who was voting at the Coulee Recovery Center in La Crosse with her daughter on Tuesday.

One nonprofit group, the “Election Defenders,” was stationed outside the polling place Tuesday, there to provide support to voters.

The group was offering masks, hand sanitizer, pens and gloves to voters if they were without, and were there to help answer questions, like when two voters accidently went to the wrong polling place, or checking in with a group of young voters walking by.

“Everybody able to vote?,” one of the group members asked, to which the group excitedly responded “yes!”

“We’re just here to provide support,” said volunteer Jillian Ritchie, who was wearing a yellow hoodie that read “count every vote” on it.

“Just to make sure that everybody’s able to vote and if they needed anything, that we would be available,” she said.

Members of the group, which deployed thousands of volunteers to different polling places across the nation on Tuesday, said that there was too much confusion for voters this election, from when and how to mail in your ballot to if you needed to wear a mask at your polling site.

“There’s too many different rules, and then you hear on the news, one state has one policy — it’s just, it’s almost a strategy to confuse,” said volunteer Kent Gallaway.

Voters faced several barriers at the polls on Tuesday, not only from the risk of the virus, but from a looming potential for voter intimidation that’s been sporadically reported throughout the country in recent weeks.

Members of Election Defenders said some of them were trained in de-escalation for this purpose exactly.

“So that the voters know they’re safe and have someone they can talk to if they have problems with anything. Just someone looking out for them,” said Zoey Dionne who was volunteering with the group.

“We’re hoping it’s uneventful. I mean, that would be the best, right? Is that everybody comes in and votes, and it goes the way it’s supposed to,” Ritchie said.

“I wasn’t really nervous about voter intimidation at all, because personally, I’m comfortable with my vote, and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks,” Miley said, who voted for President Donald Trump.

But it’s what happens after the polls close that is causing concern for some, as well, as voters prepare for a heightened divide and some cities across the country, including the nation’s capital, begin boarding up businesses to prepare for possible riots.

But in La Crosse, many were hopeful the small Midwestern city wouldn’t see anything like that.

“Not in La Crosse,” said Lieba, a college student who attends school in Denver, but is a registered Wisconsin voter. She was voting with her mom, Laura, Tuesday at the Black River Beach Neighborhood Center. They both requested to not give their last names for this story.

Lieba said she’s more nervous about her college town of Denver than her hometown.

“All the downtown businesses are completely boarded up for the protests and rioters,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to last super long, but I guess it depends on the results of the election.”

“There’s always a little bit of that. I’ve been through many, many, many elections and there’s always emotion and drama. There’s always drama. I’m not worried about it,” Laura said.

Another voter at the North Side neighborhood center felt similarly about potential unrest.

“To be honest, I’m really not that worried. I guess I don’t get that emotionally invested in it,” said Danielle Rehberg, 29.

“Do I want to see change? Absolutely. But that doesn’t — one way or another, whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen,” she said.

But others were still nervous about how either side might react to the results of the race.

“I’m just worried that people are going to be unhappy no matter what, to the point of rioting, civil unrest, that kind of stuff. Regardless of who wins,” Miley said.

“My only concern would be that cool heads don’t prevail,” said Martin Bolanos, who was voting at Coulee Recovery Center with his wife, Karina, and their three-year-old son, Montgomery.

“I feel like, yeah, there’s a lot of things going on and a lot of divisiveness, but I think that we’re all citizens in the end, and we all want this country to move forward. That’s our motto, our state motto,” he said.

Going in to Election Day, many anticipated that Trump supporters would turn out stronger because they were less inclined to vote absentee than Democrats, and a large majority of voters who spoke with the Tribune on Tuesday morning were indeed casting their ballots for the president.

“I can’t stand the way he talks, obviously, but I just, I could not bring myself to vote for Biden. I just couldn’t,” Rehberg said, who also voted for Trump.

“There was things about him I just didn’t like,” she said, “and I guess I go more for Republican side of things, they tend to fall more with my beliefs.”

Others also said they voted for Trump because of party ties, like Miley, who said she supported Trump because he shared her pro-life stance and other Republican values.

For Ashley Voxland and her boyfriend, who were both voting for Vice President Joe Biden at the Black River Beach Neighborhood Center, they put it in simpler terms.

“Trump’s an idiot,” the boyfriend said, who chose not to be named.

“What he said,” Voxland responded.

For the Bolanos family, though, it wasn’t as simple as sticking with your party, though. Karina, who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and has voted Democratic in all other elections, cast her ballot for Trump on Tuesday.

“I feel like he’s done a lot already for our country. Honestly, I’m not sure that the Democratic Party today is what it used to be. So I feel like seeing what he can do for the next four years, I’m comfortable with that,” Karina said.

“I think that a lot of true colors have been shown for especially one party,” she said she likes Trump’s accomplishments during his first term, saying specifically when she recently read that Trump made animal cruelty a federal offense that was the “tipping point” for her.

“But that’s just one thing of many. It’s just been a crazy four years,” she said.

Polls are open in Wisconsin until 8 p.m. Tuesday, and a valid photo ID is required to vote.

All ballots, including absentee, must be in the hands of election officials by 8 p.m. to be counted, and officials encourage anyone who still has an absentee ballot to hand deliver it to your polling place.

To check if you’re registered, make sure you have the correct photo ID or proof of residence, to find your polling place and more voting information, visit MyVote.wi.gov.

Local officials said they expect first results to be posted between 9-10 p.m. Tuesday night, a bulk of results around midnight, and results from larger municipalities into the early morning, with hopes that a total tally will be in by 3-4 a.m.

For more election coverage and results after polls close at 8 p.m., visit LaCrosseTribune.com

“I wasn’t really nervous about voter intimidation at all, because personally, I’m comfortable with my vote, and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks.” Jill Miley, 25, a Trump supporter

"I wasn't really nervous about voter intimidation at all, because personally, I'm comfortable with my vote, and I don't really care what anyone else thinks."

Jill Miley, 25, a Trump supporter

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