As state elected officials battled over delaying the Wisconsin spring election and presidential preference primary scheduled for today, Milwaukee-based community organizers and voting rights advocates have navigated the challenge of balancing traditional get-out-the-vote activities with protecting public health and safety.
Noting the disproportionate number of novel coronavirus-related deaths in Milwaukee’s Black community, Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC), said that for many, increasing economic anxiety and staying healthy and safe were at the forefront of people’s minds along with the elections.
“We had to shift our messaging to being able to not only provide info about the election, but also letting people know about resources for things like food,” said Lang.
That meant quickly converting a field-based get-out-the-vote program based on knocking on doors and face-to-face interactions to a digital and phone-based operation to reach the surrounding community.
“We pride ourselves on being able to meet people where they are at and engage around issues they care about and directly impact them,” she said.
The status of Wisconsin’s election has been in near-constant flux over the past several days, with state Republican leadership and Gov. Tony Evers battling over whether to postpone the election in light of the statewide stay-at-home order in effect through April 24. On Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours before Election Day in-person voting was set to begin, Evers issued an executive order suspending in-person voting and delaying the election and presidential primary until June 9. Wisconsin Republican legislative leadership challenged the governor’s order in court, and within hours, it was overturned by the conservative-controlled state Supreme Court.
Federal court has also served as a battleground in the ongoing fight. Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge William Conley issued an order to give Wisconsin voters an extra day—until Friday, April 3—to request an absentee ballot and pushed the deadline to return absentee ballots to April 13. Republicans appealed, and in a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court overturned Conley’s order. Absentee ballots now must be postmarked by April 7 and received by April 13 at 4 PM in order to be counted. Absentee ballots can also be hand delivered by 8 PM tonight.
Republican legislative leaders resisted a prior call for a special legislative session last Saturday. The failure of the governor and state legislature to reach an agreement about how to handle the election in the middle of a public health crisis drew a strong rebuke from Conley. As reported by several outlets including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conley said: “The State of Wisconsin’s legislature and governor are not willing to step up and say there’s a public health crisis and make it absolutely clear that we should not be allowing poll workers and voters to congregate on April 7.”
Even though Wisconsin voters have been encouraged to vote absentee to avoid in-person voting or drive-thru voting, advocates fear that people unable to use these other methods may still try to show up at the polls. Darrol Gibson, managing director of Leaders Igniting Transformation, said people who do not receive absentee ballots but are motivated to vote are being forced to choose between their health and exercising their voting rights. “This is a person who has wanted to go vote,” Gibson said of individuals who requested absentee ballots. “So you know this person most likely will then try to go to in-person voting.” Gibson stressed the precarious nature of in-person voting given the percentage of overall COVID-19 cases and deaths concentrated in Milwaukee’s Black community.
Those who did not update their voter registration in time to request an absentee ballot may also be prevented from voting. Under normal circumstances, Wisconsin has same-day voter registration at a voter’s respective polling location, but Milwaukee has consolidated the usual 180 polling locations into five sites, which will be staffed by the National Guard due to a shortage of poll workers.
While most national media coverage has focused on the presidential primary, Wisconsin voters have several state and local races and issues at stake on the ballot, including a highly contested state Supreme Court race. For the first time in over 20 years, Milwaukee voters will vote on a public school funding referendum. With elections for mayor and county executive also on the ballot, Gibson said there is a lot at stake on the ballot for Milwaukee residents.
“This is a very pivotal time for the city of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, and Wisconsin. Local elections matter the most,” said Gibson.
“It really is a shame that the GOP is more interested in maintaining their power and suppressing already marginalized communities voices than keeping the public safe,” said Lang. “This is not a time to play politics, but instead do the right thing and see the humanity in each other.”
As the response to the COVID-19 pandemic generates more voter suppression tactics, Rebecca Lynch, a Milwaukee organizer who most recently served as the state political director on a presidential campaign, said the pandemic has exposed the cracks in the system in ways never experienced before, including in the voting and democratic process.
“We are seeing in real time the importance of state and local leadership,” said Lynch. “A wider pool of voters are experiencing the frustrations and inequity experienced every election cycle by voters with challenges around mobility, accessing technology, or navigating government systems.”
Lang echoed that sentiment, and pointed out the importance of holding local leaders accountable for their impact on people’s lives.
“If people are upset about how our local leaders are responding and enacting policy—or not—during this crisis, we should do everything we can to keep the same energy at the ballot box when they are up for reelection,” she said.