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“We’re here to make a difference and have our voices be heard.” Milwaukee voters defiant; others say their votes are suppressed

Voters stand in line to vote on April 7, 2020. Photo by Robert Chappell.

Despite a statewide order not to gather in public, thousands gathered in large groups at just five high schools in Milwaukee and waited hours to cast their votes for State Supreme Court, Milwaukee Mayor, Milwaukee County Executive and several other local races, in addition to the Democratic presidential primary.

The city, which usually has 180 polling places, only opened five for Tuesday’s spring election, as fears of the coronavirus pandemic severely limited the number of available poll workers. Concerned that people would choose not to vote, and concerned that those who did vote could risk their health and the health of others, Gov. Tony Evers yesterday ordered the election postponed, but the Republican leaders of the legislature appealed to the State Supreme Court, whose conservative majority overturned that order. 

Justice Daniel Kelly, who is up for election on Tuesdays’ ballot, recused himself from that vote.

Some of those who turned out Tuesday said they felt the consolidation of polling places, along with holding an election under threat of a deadly virus, was an attempt to suppress their vote — and they weren’t about to let that happen.

“I feel motivated. I feel like it was definitely something to try to keep people home, to try to stop the votes, decrease the votes,” said Shalia, a voter who waited nearly two hours to vote at Rivrerside High School. “So, this is how they want it to be. But I’m glad that so many people came out, stood in the rain and the hail. We’re here to make a difference and have our voices be heard.”

People stand in line outside Marhsall High School. Photo by Robert Chappell.

“I’m just hopeful that people are conscious that their vote matters regardless of what’s going on,” said Jason, a voter who waited about an hour at Marshall High School. “I do think that it shows the resiliency of people in Milwaukee, especially in this community. I do know that I am definitely motivated to get out and express myself the only way that I can, while all this is going on.”

Some viewed the handling of the election itself as their motivation to vote.

“We’ve got to get some change around here,” said Joshua, who voted at Riverside. “We’ve got to get some elected officials for Milwaukee, some better elected officials. We need to get just change all around.”

“We’re doing what we can.”

A poll worker outside Washington High School, working his first election after being drafted into poll service from his normal job in housing, said he estimated there were about 100 people working the voting site, including regular election workers, National Guard members activated by Gov. Tony Evers, and health department workers taking people’s temperatures and looking out for symptoms of COVID-19.

Also at Washington, Community Task Force MKE volunteers were handing out water bottles, masks and fresh pens — so voters wouldn’t have to use pens that had been touched by other voters.

“People actually waited in line, there wasn’t really much complaining about the wait,” said Vaun Mays of Community Task Force MKE, who has also been helping provide food and other support for people affected by the pandemic. “I think under the circumstances it’s been a very huge turnout. I’ve never seen anything like this. People have concerns, a lot of people were really just kind of done with the process. But when they saw these lines, a lot of people just said, ‘man, when I saw the line I couldn’t just not vote. So I got in line too.’”

At Marshall, Jervel “Mr. Bar-b-que” Williams was giving out free hot dogs and Polish sausages, subsidized by a voter rights groups from St. Louis.

Jervel Williams hands out free hot dogs and Polish sausages to voters at Marshall High School. Photo by Robert Chappell.

“We’re doing what we can,” Williams said. “We want to get as many people out here as we can to really make a difference.”

At most polling places, poll workers and volunteers could be seen walking up and down the line, making sure people were at the correct polling place and that they had the correct documents with them.

Police at the Marshall location on duty to keep the street closed to traffic said they could tell people were frustrated, but overall in good spirits and cooperative. 

Health department workers had placed traffic cones six feet apart to give people an idea of how far apart to stand; most people could be observed attempting to remain distant from one another, but most stood well within six feet of people near them in line.

“My state disenfranchised me”

Voters we spoke to in Milwaukee were defiant in what they viewed as an attempt at voter suppression; others said they were outright suppressed.

“This is going to suppress the vote,” said Fred Royal, the head of the Milwaukee County NAACP and candidate for Milwaukee Alder, who was observing and providing support at the Marshall location. “There’s thousands of absentee ballots that were requested that weren’t delivered. So that’s suppressing the vote right there. Curbside voting isn’t as (accessible) for those that have physical impairments. All those things are keeping people from the poll along with the pandemic.”

Ricky Bonds went to vote at Riverside but turned around and left when he saw how long the line was.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “We got a coronavirus. If you’re going to open one poll you might as well open them all. A lot of people’s votes are being suppressed.”

Jessica Mirkes, who said she’s voted in every election in Milwaukee since 2000, requested an absentee ballot before the deadline but it never came. 

Tuesday morning, she made the “very difficult decision” not to vote, mostly because she has an eight-month-old daughter.

“If it was just me and my husband, I’d be fine,” she said. “But if anything happened to my daughter, I could never forgive myself.”

Still, the decision wasn’t easy.

“I only slept three hours last night,” Mirkes said. “I cried over this decision. This was not an easy decision for me. I grew up with my mother taking my brother and I to the polls with her for every election. So I actually called her to even talk to me through this because it is such, it’s such like deeply ingrained within my family to vote.

“My state disenfranchised me,” she said, blaming the GOP, State Supreme Court and US Supreme Court.

Milwaukee resident Hannah Gleeson said she tested positive for COVID19 and is finally beginning to feel better after nearly two weeks of illness, but didn’t feel comfortable possibly exposing others.

“We have a stay-at-home order in place, we’re told to do everything we can to flatten the curve, and yet it’s fine to send thousands of people today to the polls,” said Gleeson, who also said she requested and absentee ballot and didn’t get it. “It’s voter suppression at its finest and signs of a failing democracy.”

It wasn’t only Milwaukee residents who felt disenfranchised.

Pam Fischer, a voter in Green Bay, returned an absentee ballot without a witness signature — which was allowed under a federal court order, until the the United States Supreme Court sided with Republicans and overturned that order.

So basically, even though I did everything right, I ended up with a vote that wouldn’t be counted,” Fischer wrote in an email to Madison365. “My only option that I knew of was to go in person today and let them know what happened so I could cast a fresh ballot. But there is no way I was going to let the GOP and GOP SCOTUS bully me into putting my life on the line and the lives of anyone I might come into contact with to cast a vote in an election that could have been postponed.”

Fischer also said failing to postpone the election was a disservice to everyone who’s been working hard to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“We have all made sacrifices to reduce the spread of COVID and protect ourselves, our families and our communities,” she wrote. “We made great sacrifices to do that – we gave up jobs and income, we closed our businesses, we distanced ourselves from people we love and miss. And what did the GOP legislators and SCOTUS do to honor that and help protect us? They threw it all away and told us to go out and die!”

In Madison, one voter said she couldn’t risk going out into a crowd.

I am a mother of seven and middle school teacher with a heart issue and asthma, at risk of a severe outcome from covid-19,” Shanna Lenoir-Beckfield said in a message to Madison365. “My children and students need me.

Lenoir-Beckfield said she missed the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot.

“I was too busy preparing for upcoming online schooling that the deadline passed me by,” she said. “Figured I could go if I needed to, and heard that it may be postponed and I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to risk my life or my children’s lives by going out. I want to thank and appreciate all of those who risked their well-being to go out and vote today. I pray they will not become sick and suffer for the right to vote.”

Now we wait

County and municipal clerks have not yet posted results as they await any additional absentee ballots, and it may be impossible to ascertain how many voters chose not to vote because of the consolidation of polling places and fears of coronavirus.

The Milwaukee City Clerk did say that almost 19,000 people voted in person and that an additional 56,000 absentee ballots had been returned. The total of 75,000 is considerably lower than the 168,000 who turned out in the 2016 presidential primaries and mayoral election, but closer to the 82,000 who turned out for the mayoral election and Republican primary in 2012.

Further, it is not known whether any Milwaukee voters were found to have coronavirus symptoms.

In his order to postpone the election Monday, Evers noted that Michigan held an election on March 10, which Ohio postponed their election; a week later, Michigan witnessed a spike in coronavirus infection while Ohio did not.

Wisconsin is currently on track to peak in terms of hospitalizations around April 15, with more than 1,500 hospital beds required at that time, according to projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The majority of voters at both Marshall and Washington High Schools, at the time of observation, was predominantly Black. The voters in line at Riverside were a mix of Black and white.

So far, Black people in Milwaukee have been far more likely to die from COVID19 than any other ethnicity — of the 51 people who have died from COVID19 in Milwaukee County, 33 were Black. That’s 73 percent of fatalities in a county whose population is about 25 percent black.

That’s no coincidence, said Royal, the head of the NAACP in Milwaukee.

We have an employer-based healthcare system,” Royal said. “So, when you have a population that has 50% black male unemployment, 40% poverty for 40 years, you have lack of healthcare access.”

So, on a night when reporters would normally be up late poring over election returns, we are left to wait. 

This time, though, we wait for more than the results of the vote. We also wait to find out how many people came out to cast a ballot and went home with a deadly disease.