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Black voters in Wisconsin put their lives on the line to vote during the April 7 election, flipping a state Supreme Court seat and winning a ballot referendum in Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s spring election offered a crash course in civics and state and local governance for the entire country.

While the news cycle may have moved on, election season is still underway with several states having elections in the coming months. In several states, voters have been encouraged to vote by absentee ballot to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19. A recent nationwide poll found that two-thirds of voters support voting by mail for the November general election.

Coupled with increased public health concerns, election officials across the country must constantly assess and evaluate needs ahead of upcoming elections. Wisconsin has a special election for the 7th Congressional District in May and several races up for election in August. Election system assessments must be made to understand how systems work under pressure and what is needed to scale up to meet shifting demand. 

Fred Royal, president of the NAACP of Milwaukee, spoke with Prism about the failure to delay the Wisconsin spring election and the complexity of managing overall response to the pandemic. Royal described the issue as not being a partisan one, but an issue with respecting human life and the democratic process.  

“We can start getting creative and start mailing out ballots to registered voters right now,” Royal said. “And start educating people on what needs to occur to ensure that the return ballot is counted right now […] being proactive versus being reactive.”

For its part, Milwaukee will mail absentee ballot applications to eligible voters ahead of the fall election. Other municipalities are doing the same. Wisconsin Public Radio reported that several other municipalities were considering similar action.

“We need to really have a transparent assessment of how the systems were overworked due to all of this unexpected influx of people requesting ballots, not just necessarily on the Election Commission, but also on the Postal Service,” Angela Lang said in an interview with Prism. Lang, the executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), said that more needs to be done to communicate with the Postal Service to make sure it can handle increased absentee ballot mail.

First-person voter accounts collected by Wisconsin State Voices and coalition partners showed a range of issues, including voters never receiving requested ballots, voters receiving damaged ballots, or receiving ballots without the proper envelopes for return. A voter from Green Bay reported that the lines were too long for their disabled husband to stand for three hours. Another voter reported issues with helping their elderly mother vote, noting she could not figure out how to download her ID to submit with her absentee ballot request. These accounts echo news reports of widespread issues on Election Day and with the absentee ballot process.

The Wisconsin Election Commission reported 1,551,711 votes were cast in the spring election, representing a 34.3% turnout overall. While this is consistent with prior election cycles, it marks a noticeable decline in turnout from the 2016 spring election in which over 2,113,544 voters cast ballots. Over 70% of the ballots cast in the 2020 spring election were by absentee ballot.

In a post-election statement, Wisconsin State Voices called for accountability, tying the failed response to the heavily gerrymandered electoral maps that permitted “politicians [to] act in total disregard for the lives of the people who elect them, without fear of accountability or loss of power.”

As governors across the country are contemplating “reopening” their states despite the ongoing pandemic, the easing of restrictions meant to combat the pandemic could extend the need for additional election precautions.

“[To] ease off of what is working before you have eliminated the threat completely will just bring another outbreak of the pandemic,” Royal said. “Once again, this country is valuing a dollar more than human life. When you hear [the] president talking about we have to open up the economy. We gotta get back to work.”

Scaling up absentee ballot use is only the first step to administering elections. Recently the Milwaukee Health Commissioner announced that seven new cases of COVID-19 were directly connected to Election Day activity, and Wisconsin state officials shared that 19 cases statewide have been traced to the election as well. This is a sobering reminder that protecting the public health, voting rights, and process integrity are complementary endeavors that must be considered ahead of the next round of elections. Voters shouldn’t have to choose between protecting their health and the health of their communities and exercising their constitutional rights.

“If we’re living in a strong, healthy, robust democracy, we should be making it easy for folks and making sure that everybody has the ability to vote,” Lang said. “Because when we’re limiting democracy…not everyone is able to have a say, and participate in their own governance, structure and electing their own leaders.”

Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.