Watching the returns come in this week brought up conflicting emotions for those of us who had fought so hard to protect the right to vote during this pandemic. Yes, I was inspired that hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who had cast their ballots – with record numbers casting their votes by mail. But above all, I was angry that voters had been put in that position of choosing between their health and their vote, and furious at the number of voters who couldn't cast a ballot at all.
Voters from across the state turned out to vote; some risking their health to vote in-person and waiting in two or three-hour long lines. Others faced total confusion surrounding the absentee ballot process; not knowing why the ballot they requested never came, or came on April 8th when it was too late to return.
In Milwaukee, it seemed to be a perfect storm designed to suppress African American and Latino participation. Only five of 180 polling places were open, leading to enormous confusion about where in person voting took place, and we know from same-day registration numbers in Milwaukee that more African American and Latino voters would be impacted by the decision to close polling places.
I worked with Wisconsin Election Protection and observed voting in four of the five Milwaukee sites last week. I heard story after story of people who requested ballots that never came, but “had never missed an election and weren’t going to miss this one” and folks of all ages who had never voted before but wanted to participate. I watched one woman who had waited in a line that was over two hours long at Washington High School get to the front and be told she should have gone to a different polling place, but it was after 8pm and so she was unable to vote. I helped other individuals determine what documents they needed to register to vote, when they got to the front of the line and their registration wasn’t found.
Voters should never have been forced to choose between their health and safety and their ability to participate in the election. African Americans made up half of the COVID-19 cases in Milwaukee and about 80% of the deaths, so we were placing an extra burden on those people to risk going to an in person polling place. The fact that Black Wisconsinites had to endure a life-threatening ordeal to exercise their right to vote is a chilling reminder that Black people have continued to have to risk their lives for their voting rights, long after the Civil Rights era.
Our elected leadership failed us by allowing this election to move forward. In Wisconsin and around the country, there is a continued pattern of being willing to disenfranchise people, particularly people of color, with low incomes, and people with disabilities. And high ranking institutions like our courts condoned this unequal treatment. Wisconsin has three more elections scheduled for 2020 and it is critical that our elected representatives act now to put in place election processes that ensure all voters can be safe while exercising their constitutionally guaranteed voting rights. A group of over 35 organizations made a number of recommendations for how to move forward in the wake of this election. Elected leaders need to act on those.
I suspect that the story about this election that will be told is how Wisconsinites triumphed in spite of the voter suppression that was directed at them. A friend of mine said it was like one of those sports movies with a team of scrappy underdogs and the lesson that cheaters don’t win. But the voter suppression happened. People couldn’t vote. And we need to do better.