Jeffrey Phelps, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. — The passions that fueled a long fight over union rights and Wisconsin's cash-strapped budget brought voters out in strong numbers Tuesday to decide whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker.
The first-term Republican was back on the ballot just a year and a half after his election. Enraged Democrats and labor activists gathered more than 900,000 signatures to force the vote after they failed to stop Walker and his GOP allies in the state Legislature from stripping most public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
The recall is a rematch of the 2010 election in which Walker beat Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by nearly 6 points. If he succeeds, Walker would become the first U.S. governor to successfully fend off a recall.
With more than 20 percent of precincts reporting, Walker was ahead 60.5 percent to nearly 39 percent for Barrett, according to early returns tabulated by The Associated Press.
The recall effort began bubbling last year, shortly after the former Milwaukee County executive successfully pushed through the union rights law that also required most state workers to pay more for health insurance and pension benefits.
"I think most people are just happy to have the election over," Walker said at a suburban Milwaukee elementary school where he cast his ballot. "I think most voters of the state want to have all the attack ads off. They want to have their TVs back. They want to have their lives back."
Hundreds of Walker opponents gathered Tuesday night outside the Capitol, banging on drums, blowing horns and holding signs, awaiting results.
Barrett, meanwhile, applauded voters for turning out in force and for being prepared to wait a while to cast their ballots.
"Obviously the lines are very, very long, which we take as a very encouraging sign. People are engaged in this," Barrett said, adding that the energy around the state the past four days has been "building and building."
Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press showed most voters made up their minds about the candidates before the final ballot had even been determined. About 9 in 10 who voted said they decided before May. Those who made up their minds in the last month broke for Barrett by nearly 30 points.
Union households made up about a third of the electorate, and about two-thirds of them backed Barrett, about the same level of support he received among the group in 2010. The Democratic candidate improved on his 2010 performance among African-Americans, those with incomes below $50,000 and independents.
Turnout was strong across the state. There were lines at multiple polling places, but no major problems were reported. Anyone in line after polls closed was allowed to cast a ballot.
Turnout was on pace to meet predictions of 65 percent of eligible voters, Magney said. That type of turnout is more typically seen in a presidential race.
Jeff Naunheim, a warranty analyst from St. Francis who voted for Walker, called the recall a waste of time and money. But Barrett supporter Lisa Switzter of Sun Prairie said even if the recall doesn't go Barrett's way, "it proves a point."
"People in Wisconsin aren't just going to stand by and let a governor take over the state and cut social services," said Switzer, an occupational therapist and single mother on BadgerCare, the state's health insurance program for the working poor.
The exit polls suggested the public's views on collective bargaining are deeply entrenched. About three quarters either strongly approve or strongly disapprove of the changes for government workers. Overall voters were about evenly divided on the question, with about half approving and half disapproving of those changes.
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