Kurt Reinhold was expecting the worst. An election observer with President Obama's Protect-the-Vote campaign, Reinhold was sitting at the UW-Madison's Gordon Commons on Dayton Street, on the lookout for any efforts to disenfranchise student voters.
But as of noon, the most peculiar thing Reinhold witnessed was of the cuddly variety. A blind voter came in with his service dog. The dog's leash was a bit long, Reinhold says, and the dog took to "sniffing everybody. There were a lot of smiling faces, but nothing getting in the way of voting."
Many fear that Wisconsin will be this year's Ohio -- a tight swing state where every vote will be hotly contested by teams of lawyers on both sides. There were also fears that right-wing funded groups and Mitt Romney's campaign would send armies of poll watchers to question, harass and badger election workers in an effort to keep the student and minority votes low.
Observers with the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin have reported several cases of intimidation at polls in Milwaukee. "At one site, they've acted as a greeter and were intimidating people as they come in," says Carolyn Castore, the League's state coordinator for election observers. "In one case, they were standing two feet behind people who were voting."
"Mainly what it is doing is slowing the lines down and slowing down voter registration," she says of the agitators. "People only have so much time in life."
Castore says she didn't know which groups the observers represented: "At this point our job is not to assign blame but get them in line."
However, she adds: "It's remarkably concentrated in high black and high Latino wards. We have not been getting any reports, for example, from Washington Heights," a more affluent (but also Democratic-leaning) neighborhood.
In Racine, several wards ran out of ballots sometime after 2 p.m., Castore says. Mayor John Dickert refused to print more ballots, according to Castore and Ann S. Jacobs, an attorney with Wisconsin Election Protection legal coordinating committee. "We're not certain why the mayor had anything to do with this at all," says Castore. "By law, the city clerk requests the ballots and the county clerk delivers them."
No one answered the phone at Dickert's office this evening.
The mayor's office eventually relented, Castore says, and agreed to print more ballots -- and give those waiting in line a bottle of water and a granola bar. "At some of these places there are 300 people waiting to vote," she says. "But other people left."
Jacobs says that six polling places in Racine ran out of ballots and several others were low. "We are reaching out to the media to encourage people who left [without voting] to go back," she says. "They are going to get to vote if they are in line by 8."
In contrast, Madison was relatively quiet, with few reported problems at the polls. And Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, says there was little evidence of intimidation.
A visit to several polls turned up hardly any observers from the conservative side of the aisle, but plenty representing Democrats and independent groups, like the League of Women Voters.
Rumors of problems have popped up for a few polling places, but nothing serious has been substantiated. Early in the day, a voter called the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin to report that an observer was harassing workers at Bjarnes Romnes Apartments, a public housing development on the city's south side.
That was news to Richard Miller, the ward's chief inspector, who jokes, "I was really looking forward to bouncing an observer."
Instead, Miller says, "There are two very docile observers who have been very alert. I have a line taped off for where they can sit. If something exciting happens like counting absentee ballots, I explain to them what's going on." Both observers represented the Obama side.
At the polling place above Fresh Madison Market on University Avenue, there were as many as 10 election observers early in the morning, but all of them represented Democratic or independent groups. After a few hours, all but two left.
A block away at Gordon Commons, Ald. Mike Verveer, the chief inspector, says things were mostly quiet. "I expected there to be more election observers and I expected them to ask more questions."
New laws passed under Gov. Scott Walker have created stricter requirements for registering. People must prove they've lived at an address for 28 days prior to registering; the old requirement was 10 days. The residency requirement affects students in particular, since they move frequently. Verveer says there were few same-day registrations and not many problems with registrations in general. At 5 p.m., the ward had seen about 1,800 voters and only about 300 new registrations.
"We've been pleasantly surprised that the majority of students are pre-registered," he says. "In other elections, we have done much more brisk business registering voters. It seems to indicate how excellent the voter registration drive on campus has been."
A recently passed law that requires voters to show photo ID at the polls was overturned by the courts. The state is appealing, but for now it is on hold. There are scattered, random reports of some voters being asked for ID, but it does not seem widespread. Dane County Supv. Jenni Dye tweeted that she saw a poll worker in Fitchburg ask a Latino woman for identification. The worker, however, didn't ask any of the many white people also in line, says Dye.
But the problems in Dane County appear sparse. An observer for Mitt Romney's Orca Project is happy with how the voting has gone. Dan Barker stood at the Hill Farms State Transportation Building on Madison's west side, checking the names of those who showed up to vote with a registration list he has on an iPad.
It's a high-tech system, he explains, that instantly communicates data to Romney's team in Boston. "I have a help button I can hit if I get kicked out or something serious happens," he says. Triggering the button would notify the campaign's lawyers -- including two working in the Madison area -- to come to his aid.
The program is called "Orca," Barker explains, because orca whales happen to be the biggest predator of the narwhal, which is the nickname for the Obama campaign's voter turnout program.
"It's been under wraps for several months," he says, explaining that the program is supported by 34,000 volunteers around the country. "We've all been vetted on Facebook and Twitter to make sure we're party loyal."
But, Barker hasn't sniffed out any major shenanigans at the Madison polling location. "I would like there to be more supervision of the absentee vote counting -- they're right out in the open and there's just one person counting them," he says. But he adds, overall. "It's been really smooth, just really busy."
Barker volunteers -- standing in the same spot in front of the DMV all day -- because he worries about the integrity of the election system. He supports voter ID laws. And he thinks people should prove they're qualified to vote.
"It does scare me sometimes," he says. "We make you take a test before letting you drive. You should have to take a test before letting you vote for the most powerful person on the planet."