Milwaukee’s black and brown residents weigh tough choices on Election Day: Lose their vote, or risk coronavirus?

Disenfranchisement concerns swirl as Wisconsin forges ahead with a high-stakes election despite public health experts’ calls to slow the virus by staying home

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Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Watch

In the city of Milwaukee, the usual 180 polling sites have been reduced to just five in-person voting centers due to an extreme shortage of poll workers. Here, a sign directs voters to an early voting location at Midtown Shopping Center in Milwaukee on Oct. 28, 2018.

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Paula Durrell has cherished her right to vote since she turned 18.

But she will not be casting a ballot Tuesday in order to protect herself from the coronavirus.

Courtesy of Paula Durrell

Paula Durrell, a retired 64-year-old breast cancer survivor, says she is strictly following Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order. That means not voting on Tuesday — giving up the civic duty she has practiced since turning 18.

The retired 64-year-old breast cancer survivor said she is strictly following Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order and has no plan to break the rules for the spring election that, as of Monday evening, is still set to include in-person voting.

In the city of Milwaukee, the usual 180 polling sites have been reduced to just five in-person voting centers due to an extreme shortage of poll workers.

“I am a faithful voter for everything. Voting is very important to me,” she said. “But it’s not number one right now under the conditions that we’re living in.”

In addition to Evers’ order, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s current guidelines encourage people to stay home and maintain distance from other people to prevent the COVID-19 virus from spreading. And public health experts in Wisconsin call in-person voting an unnecessary risk during the pandemic. 

Durrell said she personally knows three people in Milwaukee who have died from the COVID-19 disease, including two from her church in Washington Heights. She has asthma and diabetes, which puts her in a high-risk category for the coronavirus. She doesn’t want to take any chances.

“It’s really hitting close to home for me, and it feels like our leaders are not even concerned about the number of people who are dying,” Durrell said. “It’s a shame.”

As of Monday evening, Milwaukee County had confirmed 1,304 cases of coronavirus, and 45 people had died.

In order to vote without leaving her home, Durrell, who described herself as “old school,” would have had to request an absentee ballot before the extended deadline, which was Friday.

She said she doesn’t own a computer, has never voted absentee and doesn’t know how to.

“I’m really feeling neglected that I’m not going to be out there to voice my opinion or to vote,” Durrell said.

“I’m an African American, and we didn’t always have the opportunity to vote, the right to speak, or to have a right to make some kind of decision, and that’s very important to me to let my thoughts be heard.”

Tough decisions

Her decision is one that thousands of other Milwaukee residents will face leading on Tuesday.

In addition to the presidential primary, Milwaukee’s next mayor, county executive, city comptroller, city attorney, state supreme court justice and other local offices, as well as a major referendum for the city’s public schools, are all on the ballot.

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch

Milwaukee residents vote at an early voting location at Midtown Shopping Center in Milwaukee on Oct. 28, 2018.

Evers called a special legislative session on Saturday in an attempt to push the election back, but the Assembly adjourned after a mere 17 seconds with no resolution. The Senate session was even shorter, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Only one Republican legislator showed up in either chamber. Evers on Monday briefly suspended Tuesday’s in-person voting — a move that Republicans appealed, and the conservative-leaning Wisconsin quickly overturned.

Throughout much of Monday, voting was set to proceed under rules issued by U.S. District Court Judge William Conley and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The timeline to return absentee ballots had been extended to April 13, though voters could no longer request a ballot. But the U.S. Supreme Court Monday night further narrowed voters’ options, ruling that ballots must be postmarked by April 7 to be counted.

Early voting continued over the weekend at the drive-thru polling site downtown, but all other early voting sites were shut down on March 22.

As of now, anyone in Wisconsin who is not already registered to vote will have to vote in person to exercise their right to same-day registration.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has joined a list of mayors across the state calling for a cancelation of in-person voting, and County Executive Chris Abele has called for the election to be delayed.

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch

Milwaukee residents Edna Moore, Maxine White, Vivian Gleason and Naomi Stamps — all sisters — are pictured outside an early voting location at Midtown Shopping Center in Milwaukee on Oct. 28, 2018. White, a judge on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, says she and her sisters come to vote together every election.

Local advocates are concerned that the last-minute adjustments made to Wisconsin’s voting process were too little, and too late, and that they will disenfranchise large numbers of black and brown voters in Milwaukee’s central city.

“That decision to not do something, in all of these weeks that we knew this would be a crisis, was a decision too, to leave our most vulnerable behind and to disenfranchise these voters,” said Maya Neal, political strategy director for Leaders Igniting Transformation, or LIT, a youth-focused civic engagement and advocacy organization.

The first time Evers proposed postponing the election was on Friday. Before that, he had suggested measures such as making the election completely by mail and sending every registered voter an absentee ballot.

Republican lawmakers support going ahead with Tuesday’s election, and they accuse Evers of having “flip-flopped” on the question. 

“Hundreds of thousands of workers are going to their jobs every day, serving in essential roles in our society. There’s no question that an election is just as important as getting take-out food,” House Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a joint statement Friday.

“Our Republic must continue to function, and the many local government positions on the ballot must be filled so that municipalities can swiftly respond to the crisis at hand.”

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch

This sign encourages voting at an early voting location at Midtown Shopping Center in Milwaukee on Oct. 28, 2018.

LIT, alongside organizations including the African American Roundtable and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, have been petitioning for the election to be postponed since March 17.

“These black and brown voices have been telling our leaders to figure out how to do this in a just and equitable way for weeks, and to just act now this weekend is irresponsible,” Neal said. “As black and brown folks in Milwaukee, we’re used to that. Not being listened to, not having our votes or our health count and be cared about.”

LIT has switched its outreach strategy to contact voters through texting, and its organizers have focused their efforts on helping people get an absentee ballot and make sure to return it so that they still have access to their vote.

‘Folks are unsure’

But despite their efforts, Neal said that her team is worried about people having all the information they need because of the changes.

“Now we’re in this situation where folks are unsure, they did not have time to adjust to the changes, and leadership is not doing anything about it,” she said. “Nobody should be forced to choose between staying safe and healthy and exercising their right to vote, which is kind of what we’re asking right now.”

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch

Milwaukee resident Rob Johnson, a basketball coach at Providence Baptist church in Milwaukee, is seen after casting a ballot at an early voting location at Midtown Shopping Center in Milwaukee on Oct. 28, 2018.

Kevin Morris, a researcher for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, echoed Neal’s concerns.

“By trying to shift the primary vote mode so quickly and so dramatically without giving time for voters to understand the changes, you’re disproportionately benefiting the voters who have access to that information, which are often more-educated, higher-income voters,” he said.

“The main concerns are that leaders in Wisconsin are shuttering so many polling places and have not loosened absentee voting requirements enough to make sure that all voters will have equitable access to the ballot box.”

Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, told the Journal Sentinel that he estimates 40,000 to 50,000 people could show up to the polls to vote on Tuesday.

Grassroots leaders in Milwaukee have said that the adjustments to the election have not gone far enough, will disproportionately impact voter turnout in Milwaukee neighborhoods, and will put residents’ health and safety at risk.

“The failure to postpone the election is a massive piece of voter suppression,” said Jack Norman, communications director for the advocacy organization Voces de la Frontera. “However much we want people to vote, we can’t go against the public health necessity and urge people to vote in person.”

With so many Milwaukee election workers refusing to staff Tuesday’s elections, the city has cut the number of in-person polling sites from 180 to five, identified by the blue pins on this map. Wisconsin National Guard members plan to staff the polls on Tuesday.

Rick Banks, the political director for BLOC, said that organizers have made tens of thousands of calls to black Milwaukee voters about how to vote early or absentee, but that they’ve faced challenges trying to do political work during a pandemic.

“People are going through a lot,” he said. “So we’ve been doing what we can to help people meet their material needs and also making sure people are staying educated on what’s happening.”

He said that many of the voters BLOC engages with are more likely to be essential workers on the frontlines of the crisis and unable to work from home, less likely to own a car and still rely on the bus, and are part of communities that have over time lacked access to health opportunities, which puts them at higher risk of being harmed by the virus.

“With the health disparities in Milwaukee, compounded with the political inequities and the economic inequities, it’s really a burden for the black community right now,” Banks said.

Outlets including ProPublica and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have recently published stories about the virus’s disproportionate impact on black residents in Milwaukee, who make up 46% of Milwaukee County’s coronavirus cases but only 26% of the county’s population.

“If you want to be able to participate in democracy and use your civil rights, we have to risk our lives in order to do so,” Banks said.

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Democratic state senator and mayoral candidate Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and community activist and aldermanic candidate Tory Lowe filed a lawsuit against the Milwaukee Election Commission and Wisconsin Elections Commission claiming the suspension of early voting disenfranchised voters of color in Milwaukee. The suit was dismissed. Taylor is seen here at Scott Walker’s budget address on Feb. 8, 2017, in Madison, Wis.

Other local leaders were also concerned about the racial inequities of the election, including Democratic state senator and mayoral candidate Lena Taylor and community activist and aldermanic candidate Tory Lowe who filed a lawsuit against the Milwaukee Election Commission and Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The suit claimed that the suspension of early voting disenfranchised voters in Milwaukee’s 53206 ZIP code, which is 94% black, and that many of those voters couldn’t request an absentee ballot online because libraries are closed. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge on Sunday.

Ray Nitti, a community activist who helped organize a parade to the polls event on Sunday for the last day of drive-thru early voting, said he’s trying to remind people that the election is an opportunity.

“With us having such an important election, it is vital that we find ways to make sure that our vote is not neutralized, watered down or weakened by any of the measures that have taken place,” he said. “Black and brown people have been represented in the categories of everything worse in the city of Milwaukee, and it’s time for us to take this into our own hands and put people in office who will fight for us.”

“It’s like a double-edged sword. You want people to vote, but you don’t want them to risk contracting the virus,” he said. “Our leaders really dropped the ball on this.”

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