Home Wisconsin Statewide voter turnout surged, but Black turnout remained steady, in presidential election

Statewide voter turnout surged, but Black turnout remained steady, in presidential election

Antoinette Jackson and her sister Elita Williams enjoy coffee and donuts after they cast their votes at Washington High School in Milwaukee on Nov. 3, 2020. A Wisconsin Watch analysis found turnout in majority-black wards in Milwaukee was down from 2016. Advocates blamed fear of contracting COVID-19, lack of face-to-face voter engagement and suspicion of mail-in voting, the method most Wisconsin voters used on Nov. 3. (Sue Vliet for Wisconsin Watch)

Voter turnout was at a record high across every state this past election, but turnout among Black and Latino voters remained relatively steady, according to exit polls.

Voter turnout is calculated by the number of ballots cast divided by the number eligible voters in the state.

Black voter turnout in Milwaukee, which holds the majority of Wisconsin’s Black population, remained nearly stagnant. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 247,700 Black people voted in Milwaukee county, only a slight increase from the 2016 presidential election.

Experts warn that the data available now may not tell the whole story, though.

“Unfortunately, we’re gonna have to wait a frustrating amount of time until we have better data about the election, both surveys and aggregate election results,” said Barry Burden, professor of political science and Director of the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison.

UW-Madison political science professor David Canon noted that Milwaukee County’s total turnout ran counter to large turnout increases at both the total state and county levels.

“Here in Wisconsin, our turnout went up over six points from 69.5 percent to 75.8 percent. That’s a really high turnout,” Canon said. “And if you look at some of the key counties … in Dane County turnout was up 11.4 percent. And so that’s quite a bit more than the state average. Waukesha County was up 12.9 percent over 2016. In Milwaukee county, it was only up 4.1 percent. Fourteen percent of the electorate was non-white, which is exactly the same [as the 2016 election].” 

Canon further added that lower minority voter turnout has a direct relationship with socio-economic status.

“There’s a fairly straight linear relationship between income, education and turnout. So  the higher your socio-economic status, you’re [more] likely to vote. It is a very strong relationship. And in Dane County, for example, it is higher income, higher levels of education than in Milwaukee County,” Canon said.

Burden noted that, to many Democrats’ surprise, minority voters in Wisconsin actually favored Donald Trump more in 202 than the previous presidential election.

“It actually looks like, again, Milwaukee being a place where we have the best data and [where] the largest minority community resides, that Black and Hispanic voters actually favored Trump a little bit more than they did four years ago,” Burden said.

According to CNN, Wisconsin exit polls in 2020 showed that seven percent of Black voters favored Trump this election, a one-percent increase from 2016, with Latino voters following this trend.

Burden noted that the increase in support from Trump from Black communities is most likely linked to a lack of on-ground campaigning by the Democrats.

“The Democrats decided, starting in March when the pandemic hit, that they were not going to do face to face campaigning,” Burden said. “And the Biden campaign did not do rallies and did not send volunteers going door to door. Instead, they relied on phone calls and texts and Postcards and other methods of contact. And I think those worked pretty effectively in some communities. But in minority communities, it may be that face-to-face campaigning is still the most effective.”

Canon further noted that the state of the economy played a role in minority support of Trump, especially regarding Latino voters.

“That’s one thing that if you look at the exit polls, the people who said the economy was the most important issue to them, they were overwhelmingly supporting Trump,  Canon said. 

“Given what we know about the covid pandemic and the kind of industries and businesses that it affected, it had a disproportionate effect on workers of color because often they were people who were working in industries that were really affected by the pandemic. And so I think the economic toll of the COVID pandemic has hit communities of color more than white people. So you can imagine that Latino voters were more concerned about the state of the economy. And if that’s true, that might explain some of the shift towards Donald Trump,” Canon continued.

In regards to voter suppression, both Canon and Burden noted that a myriad of laws enacted by former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker affected voter turnout.

During his time in office, Walker issued 33 laws in regards to voting, with two being especially detrimental: the shortening of the in-person absentee early voting period to two weeks and increased voter ID requirements and restrictions.

Many Walker’s laws, despite being issued from 2011-2015, were only put into effect in 2016 onward.

“We do know that the voter ID laws disproportionately affected three demographic groups: voters of color, young voters, especially students, and older voters, because they’re the three groups that are less likely to have a photo ID that’s compliant with the state law,” Burden said.

However, Burden stated that different cities took varying action in regards to the shorter voting period to inform and encourage voters to vote in the time allotted.

“Milwaukee’s efforts were not the same as Madison’s, just to put the two city side  by side,” Burden said. “Madison is very aggressive about getting ballots to people, collecting the ballots. ‘Ballots in the Park’ did not happen in Milwaukee. The number of drop boxes relative to the size of the city was greater in Madison than in Milwaukee. So it could be that the efforts in some cities were just greater than others to try to make good use of that two weeks of early voting. I do think the degree to which those rules are either inhibiting voters or really facilitating voting, depends a lot on how election officials make use of them and how the parties try to make use of them.”

In future, Burden noted that election officials need to take more action if they want to improve voter turnout among minorities, especially in non-presidential election years and local elections.

“When we get into the local races that are happening in 2021, or the midterms in 2022, white turnout tends to be a little more resilient,” Burden said. “Black and Hispanic turnout tends to fall more sharply and then it needs to be rebuilt every presidential election year in a way that’s not true for white voters.

“We know those communities have fewer resources. And it takes more resources to vote in a non-presidential election year, because people are receiving less help, and less stimulation,” Burden said. “In a presidential year, there’s just a lot of activity going on. There’s advertising and phone calls and churches and unions and other groups really trying to assist their voters. But a lot of that falls away [during] a midterm or especially in an odd year election. So more of the responsibility, more of the onus really, falls on individual voters.”