Tuesday’s election was hard. It was hard for all of us who care about democracy, and it was especially hard for disenfranchised communities and individual people who couldn’t vote or who had to take risks and put up with long lines just to vote. While we wait for the results, I wanted to bring you up to date on what we’ve done—and what we see going forward.
As soon as the scale of the pandemic threat became clear, the ACLU went to work: on our own, and in coalition with key allies. Together, we tried to make this election both safe and successful, and to ensure that as many ballots as possible got counted, through efforts such as these:
On March 18, we sent a joint letter to state leaders with recommendations to reduce the need for in-person voting. These measures included mailing absentee ballots to all registered voters, extending deadlines, and waiving witnessing requirements, to help those in quarantine alone—and we did, in fact, succeed in getting deadline extensions for those voting by mail.
At the same time that we pushed to make voting by mail easier, we worked in court to make sure that in-person voting remained an option for those who need it. For example, people with some disabilities need the option of in-person voting. We also know that, in every election, thousands of people—particularly new voters, African-American and Latinx voters, and people who have moved recently—take advantage of the option to register at the polls on Election Day.
As hopes for the full range of measures we advocated for deteriorated, and as the scale of potential consequences became more clear, we advocated for much better emergency planning, and we supported postponing the election, to safeguard both the health and civil rights of voters and pollworkers. This work continued right up to the eve of Election Day.
Throughout this ordeal, we worked for weeks to educate voters about their options, using everything at our disposal: social media (including paid advertising), emails to our tens of thousands of ACLU supporters statewide, blogs, and media interviews.
On Election Day itself—after both our state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court shot down sensible measures to protect voters’ health and civil rights—we took part in Election Protection efforts, sending staff members and volunteers to monitor conditions at and inside polling places, especially in Milwaukee. Astoundingly, the City of Milwaukee provided only 5 polling places, instead of the usual 180.
Let’s be clear: avoidable confusion and drastic cutbacks in the number of polling places in some communities mean voter suppression, even in an ordinary time. And this is no ordinary time. Wisconsin forced voters—especially in Milwaukee, the city with our state’s largest African-American population—to choose between their health and their fundamental right to vote.
This didn’t have to happen, and though we need time to assess, we already have initial plans and new ideas:
This year, we’ve hired five part-time staff members in different parts of the state to educate people about voting rights all the way to November. We are doing this in tandem with our Smart Justice campaign for criminal justice reform, building on the foundations that our organizers have built throughout the state over the past two years.
Especially if the pandemic continues, we need follow-through on making much better emergency plans to safeguard our citizens and our election. And it is possible: in contrast to Milwaukee, which had to reduce its number of polling places by more than 95%, Madison managed only a 28% reduction. I personally visited Madison polling sites on Election Day, and—in contrast to long lines in Milwaukee—I found no waiting and plenty of room for recommended physical distancing.
We need to work to make sure that this spring’s fiasco doesn’t breed permanent cynicism about voting. Our state legislature played a key role in this saga, going to court at the behest of legislative leaders to block sensible measures. This is part of a continued pattern of being willing to disfranchise people, particularly people of color, people of lower economic means, and people with disabilities; and institutions like our courts have cosigned these measures to treat people inequitably. Though Wisconsin’s deep gerrymandering has rigged the game, the citizens of our state still have the power to hold state lawmakers accountable in November.
I imagine you are frustrated, disappointed, or angry, and maybe a mix of all three. That’s how I feel. I can’t promise you a quick or easy way out of this—but I can promise you that we will keep working. For a hundred years, the ACLU has worked on some of our country’s worst problems, and we need you with us to do that now.
Thank you so much for supporting this critical work.