We’re looking back at our favorite stories of the year, including this from our Lasting Impacts series.
On April 7, 2020, just weeks into the pandemic, thousands of people stood in line – six feet apart – for several hours to vote in spring elections for State Supreme Court and many local offices. A frantic court battle determined that the election must go on in person, despite Gov. Tony Evers’ desire to delay it. The entire City of Milwaukee could only open five polling places due to a shortage of poll workers. A million people requested absentee ballots; many never got them.
It was a chaotic time, and a difficult day for local election officials. Nearly three years and several elections later, it’s clear the way we vote, run for office, and engage in politics has fundamentally changed.
“Very real connection”
The pandemic put people in more direct touch with the government in their day-to-day, says Angela Lang, founder of Black People Organizing Communities (BLOC). From the governor’s stay-at-home orders to federal stimulus checks to court decisions on ballot dropbox locations, people see the consequences of government decisions more directly than ever.
“In some cases, federal work felt very distinct and very far away. The State Supreme Court even felt very distant and very far, far away. How does this impact me?” Lang said. “Well, now you see very tangible things of what Congress was doing or not doing during the pandemic that could have provided relief to people. So people understood that very real connection. There’s these institutions that at one point felt so very distant and far away. But with very real, tangible issues that are happening, people are paying attention to these things.”
Lang said that direct contact has led to increased engagement among the voters BLOC talks to – which mostly includes Black folks on Milwaukee’s north side.
“When they stopped the stimulus checks, okay, Tammy Baldwin voted for it. Ron Johnson voted against it,” Lang said as an example. “That’s a very real thing for people in ways that weren’t always as real to them. So I think that there has been more of an urgency to get things done.”
Madison College political scientist Dr. Maurice Sheppard said the crisis created urgency in government operations – and an expectation among voters that the government can and should act quickly.
“American democracy and American politics is an incremental process. We change things over time,” Sheppard said. “In a crisis situation … that’s an entirely different thing. You have to act now.”
Lang said voters also expect a level of accountability that they may not have before.
“No matter what the issue is, I think that there is a certain increase in the level of accountability, and people wanting to see results,” she said.
“I think the pandemic accelerated a process that was already in motion,” Sheppard said. “Prior to the pandemic, we had political polarization. but the pandemic introduced a new element. It introduced a crisis.”
That crisis led to an increase in polarization, Sheppard said.
“What the pandemic did was introduce a new pressure, a new stress on citizens, but also on politics and the institutions that citizens interact with,” Sheppard said. “It forced us to really have to engage in what’s called collective action to work with one another in face of this crisis. And our values, particularly with social media, became much more transparent, much more obvious. And in some cases, we found out that across the country, nationally, statewide and even locally, that in certain cases, we have very different value systems. But even in cases where we have the same value system, we might prioritize the values differently … In the post pandemic, it feels more like and it looks more like instead of rivals, we’ve become enemies. You’re not just a Republican, or you’re not just the Democrat, you are the other … And what do you do with an enemy? You don’t compromise, you don’t back down and that’s where you fight until death. We are in a dangerous situation.”
That danger could manifest in violence like that seen on January 6, 2021, other election-related violence, and a general breakdown in democratic institutions, Sheppard said.
Misinformation and disinformation increased rapidly, especially through social media, during the pandemic, Sheppard said. Lang said the voters she works with have responded with a healthy skepticism.
“Our people are just skeptical in general,” Lang said. “We talked to a focus group where we read some statements (and asked) ‘how do you feel about this?’ They’re like, ‘who wrote this statement? Where did it come from? I need to do research into that.’”
Additionally, the polarization has led to an increase in engagement, said Emerge Wisconsin executive director Arvina Martin.
“With the polarization of politics right now, there are more people that want to be getting involved,” Martin said. “That’s inclusive of people that run for office, as well as people that are volunteering, who are like, ‘I’m fed up, what do I do?’ … We’re finding that people are trying to find their spot, or where they think that they can help, but they just want to help make things better.”
Campaigns go virtual
Those who do run for office have gotten “more creative and thoughtful” about how they do so, said Martin, who was director of Native American outreach for the state of Wisconsin during the 2020 campaign.
In the same way that remote work has become normal, virtual campaign events are here to stay, Martin said, largely because they’re less expensive to produce and allow candidates to reach much more targeted audiences.
“All of the events that I did were virtual, and I actually really liked it,” Martin said. “It was so much easier to get kind of like a wider variety of people and people that live in different places … I also liked it because it was easier to have more specific events” for more specific constituencies, without asking voters to drive long distances to events.
It was also a way to engage people who don’t normally attend political events at all.
“It’s a much easier ask of people, particularly people who might not be as involved or as knowledgeable about campaigns,” Martin said. “It’s much easier ask to ask people to just turn on their computers.”
Grassroots & local
Lang said going back to 2016, certain blocks of voters have disengaged from the political parties.
“I don’t know if people are really looking for the Democratic Party at this time,” Lang said. “People are looking for the grassroots organizations. There weren’t a lot of these institutions and structures. BLOC didn’t exist, Leaders Igniting Transformation didn’t exist, all these other organizations popped up post-2016. And so I think a lot of folks, instead of blaming the Democratic Party, have found an alternative political home in some of these grassroots organizations.”
Along the same lines, Sheppard said a good response to the increased polarization – the best way to counter the danger to democracy – is to focus on local government and local issues, where people can find common ground.
“I think we need to focus more on local (government). What is your city council doing? What is the once again, what’s the mayor up to, those sorts of things. What’s the road commission doing?” Sheppard said. “Those are the things that I think that, as citizens, we can manage. And it will help to improve our quality of life. I think also for citizens, it gives us a better sense that we are in charge, not that the world is spinning out of control. If we focus on local matters, it will improve our quality of life and help us feel that we’re actually doing better. And maybe to some degree, go back and embrace core American values, or American values are not left. They’re not right. They’re American.”