How the Wisconsin GOP systematically transformed the election system into a Jim Crow-style institution
“We used to be like the gold standard of voting,” said one advocate. Changes in the past decade — and now a pandemic — have added hurdles to voting.
Melody McCurtis and Danell Cross start their day early on a recent sunny Sunday morning, going door to door in their neighborhood northwest of downtown Milwaukee. Leaders of the nonprofit Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, the mother and daughter make their way slowly along the route wearing masks and using a bullhorn to maintain distancing as they offer free food, household supplies — and information about how to vote.
At one home, the pair corner a young woman who prefers not to be named, dressed in a soiled apron and a black polo shirt as she heads to work. McCurtis and Cross know that if not for their efforts, she probably will not vote on Nov. 3.
“I don’t believe in voting. I feel like the higher-ups, they gonna pick the president,” she says, throwing up her hands.
After a few minutes, the woman finally concedes that she may vote, if only to get the pair off her porch. Cross tells her she will call again, and if she doesn’t pick up, they will be back at her front door.
“You got to get on her,” McCurtis tells her mother.
“I got to,” Cross says. “I gotta follow her.”
Four years ago, lower turnout among Black voters in Milwaukee was named as a factor in President Donald Trump’s narrow 22,748-vote win over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin. McCurtis and Cross are working to ensure that what happened to Milwaukee’s Black voters in the 2016 election does not get repeated.
An investigation based on leaked documents from the Trump campaign shows it used demographic data to systematically dissuade voters in Milwaukee’s primarily Black neighborhoods from participating in the election. The Channel 4 News analysis of the data found that Black voters made up a disproportionate share of the group identified as “deterrence” voters, or voters they sought to dissuade through Facebook ads.
In one Milwaukee voting ward, where 80% of the inhabitants are Black, 44% were marked for deterrence, the British news outlet found. Of that group, only 36% turned out to vote, according to the Channel 4 News analysis.
Brad Parscale, former senior advisor to the Trump campaign, denied in a 2018 interview that the campaign ever targeted the Black community. These are not the only efforts that keep some people in the state from voting. Wisconsin — once one of the easiest states in which to vote — has steadily made it harder in the past decade under Republican control.
Voter ID. Shorter early voting windows. Extra hoops for college voters to jump through. Those and other hurdles disproportionately affect people of color, people with disabilities and college students. These are all steps Wisconsin’s Republican-run Legislature has taken in the name of preventing widespread voter fraud — a threat that experts agree is practically nonexistent.
Andrew Hitt, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, defends these new laws in the name of election integrity.
“The policies that have been put in place are to make sure that there is no cheating, that there is no unfair practices going on,” Hitt said.
He disputes the mountain of research showing fraud is a rare problem, saying those studies are biased. “We have documented instances of voter fraud over the years,” Hitt said.
Jay Urban is an attorney representing plaintiffs with disabilities in one of four federal cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to change rules for the November election to make voting easier during the pandemic. When asked to provide evidence of fraud, Republicans who intervened in the case were unable to do it, he said.
“I don’t think they are worried about that (fraud),” Urban said. “They’re sending a message that they don’t want certain votes to be cast. They don’t want certain votes to be counted. … They’re about math. More votes hurts their chances of keeping power.”
That is the calculation that McCurtis and Cross are fighting against. Cross agreed — voting is about power.
“I’m voting for Black life,” she said. “I’m voting for public officials to understand that Black votes do matter, and that they need to pay attention. And as we get our community invested in voting and building up that voting bloc … they gonna have to pay attention.”
More laws make it harder to vote
Just in Gov. Scott Walker’s first term, the Republican-run Legislature passed 33 election law changes, according to a 2015 analysis by the Cap Times. As Walker’s time in office was winding down in December 2018, the Legislature met in a hastily called extraordinary session to limit incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ powers.
Lawmakers also passed additional voting restrictions, including limiting in-person absentee balloting to two weeks before an election — hampering the weeks-long Souls to the Polls event that many Black churches in Milwaukee traditionally lead.
Now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, voters also must contend with the fear of contracting the coronavirus.
Clerks across Wisconsin are increasing safe access to voting by adding drop boxes for absentee ballots. But Republicans are trying to block those efforts as well, citing unspecified potential voter fraud.
Wisconsin’s top Republican lawmakers — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — pressured the city of Madison to halt a voting initiative called Democracy in the Park, which allowed voters to register and drop off completed ballots at more than 200 city parks in Madison. They claimed in their letter the ballot dropoff was both “illegal” and “unsecure,” but Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe said the event did not break any law.
Despite the pressure from lawmakers, the event went ahead as scheduled on Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, collecting over 10,000 ballots. As of Oct. 16, Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl had early voting ballot drop boxes installed across the city.
Wisconsin no longer leader
Scot Schraufnagel, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University and an expert in the ease of voting in each state, said Wisconsin no longer stands as a leader in voter accessibility. About half of the states, including Wisconsin, have made it harder to vote since 2010. Under GOP control, Wisconsin enacted one of the most restrictive photo ID laws in the country.
In 2018, Schraufnagel and his research team calculated the “cost of voting,” or how easy or difficult it is to vote in each state. The variables include registration deadlines, voter identification laws, number of poll hours and voting inconveniences such as no early voting or excuses required for absentee voting.
Their data show that in 10 years, from 1996 to 2016, Wisconsin slipped from 5th place to 22nd in terms of the ease of voting. Schraufnagel says that while the photo ID law is a major part of the reason for the state’s drop in the ranks, another issue is that there has been no successful legislative push to make voting easier.
“One could imagine that in 2020, Wisconsin will fall lower because they’re not keeping pace with the innovations,” Schraufnagel said, mentioning other states that have adopted measures such as automatically registering all eligible voters.
States at the top of Schraufnagel’s index such as Oregon, Colorado and California offer voters a wide array of options to cast their ballots, including generous early voting windows and easily accessible voting by mail. Many offer same-day registration — which Wisconsin has — but lack the strict photo ID requirement that Wisconsin also has.
“We had laws that were protecting our information and the security of our elections, but also made it easy for people to participate in the process,” said Analiese Eicher, former head of One Wisconsin Now, a progressive advocacy group, and current chair of the Dane County Board of Supervisors. “We used to be like the gold standard of voting.”
Determined voters head to the polls
Despite those hurdles, Wisconsin routinely places as one of the top states nationally for election turnout, says Reid Magney, the Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman. Magney says it is because Wisconsin does make it easy to vote in some ways, including same-day registration at the polls. Eileen Newcomer, Voter Education Manager of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters, also points to no-excuse absentee voting as another factor.
The Civic Health Index, which measures the degree to which citizens are engaged in local and state communities, confirms this high level of voter participation in Wisconsin.
According to data from the 2016 national election, 73% of eligible voters were registered in Wisconsin and 65% cast their ballots. That compared to the national average of 67% registered with 53% casting votes. This put the state in second place nationwide for voter turnout.
However, according to the same data, turnout in 2016 actually was low for Wisconsin, decreasing by about 40,000 votes from 2012 — a drop that was most pronounced in non-white communities. For example, from 2012 to 2016, Black voter turnout fell 19 points, while white voter turnout only dropped 2 points.
And in April, factors again conspired to lower turnout in Milwaukee, especially among Black voters. Researchers from the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that the decision to close all but five polling places and fear over contracting COVID-19 combined to cut Black voter turnout by nearly 16 percentage points.
Voting by mail: It’s not always easy
As of Tuesday, a record-breaking 1.4 million Wisconsin voters had requested absentee ballots — thanks in part to the Elections Commission decision to send absentee ballot request forms to 2.6 million voters.
McCurtis is a plaintiff in one of four lawsuits pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that seek to allow ballots that are mailed in to be counted if they arrive up to six days after Nov. 3, so long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day.
David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, says mail-in voting is “really important” but can lead to errors that a voter may not have a chance to fix.
In the April 7 election, clerks rejected 23,000 ballots, including at least 13,000 with missing signatures and witness addresses. Wisconsin law does not require clerks to notify voters of such errors.
Advocates for people with disabilities also worry about absentee ballot errors. Jason Endres, the president of self-advocacy group People First Wisconsin, encourages people with disabilities to physically go to the polls so they can use accessible voting equipment. These accessible machines vary by county in type, but usually offer adjustable font sizes, audio ballot options and touch screen voting.
With these machines “you can’t go wrong — you can’t make a mistake,” Endres said.
Denise Jess, CEO of the Council for the Blind and Visually Impaired, says voting absentee can be really tough for people who cannot see because most municipalities in Wisconsin do not offer ballots in Braille. Visually impaired voters such as Don Natzke of Shorewood, Wisconsin, ended up not voting on April 7 because of lack of accommodation and fear of exposure to COVID-19.
“I’m very concerned that the civil rights and accomodations for people with disabilities in general may be sacrificed,” Jess said.
Many nursing home residents rely on the help of special voting deputies to come into residential facilities and assist with voting. However, this year, the Wisconsin Elections Commission voted to bar them from entering nursing homes for the sake of residents’ safety.
Commission member Mark Thomsen — who favors making voting as broadly available as possible — nonetheless voted with the other five members to ban special deputies from entering care facilities, calling the service “too dangerous.”
Wendy Heyn of the Disability Vote Coalition (DVC) says fear of Wisconsin’s rising infection rate is especially acute among people with disabilities. Her group has been pushing municipal clerks and facility directors to request absentee ballots on behalf of confined residents.
“We feel really concerned that a disproportionate amount of those voters might be disenfranchised,” Heyn said. “It’s a hard situation because we know the people in those facilities are at the greatest risk for this virus being catastrophic for them, and so as disability advocates, we want them to be safe, and yet we also want them to be able to exercise their right to vote.”
Urban echoed this concern, noting the long lines and poorly ventilated buildings like old schools and churches that are frequently used as polling sites. He said those factors could be especially dangerous for voters with disabilities. Said Urban: “Somebody on oxygen can’t wait three hours to vote.”
Witness requirement creates barrier
Wisconsin is one of 11 states to require that absentee voters return their ballot with a witness signature. While it is certainly safer to get a witness when there is not a pandemic, this presents a potential barrier for absentee voters even in regular elections.
This requirement can be a particular challenge for voters who live alone — or who do not live with other adult citizens, such as Heyn, whose partner is a German national.
“I have to go to my neighbors and have them witness it, because I don’t have an adult citizen living in my house. That’s an exposure risk. A lot of people live alone. If you’re quarantining alone, who do you have sign it?” Heyn said.
The Elections Commission recommends possible workarounds, such as having a witness watch through a window or video call, and then leave the ballot outside to be signed, or passing ballots at arm’s length through the windows of parked cars.
‘Lot of work to be done’
Hannah Fried, the National Campaign Director at All Voting Is Local, says the coronavirus crisis has “served to further expose the cracks in our voting systems.”
“There is a lot of work to be done here,” Fried added. “And what we cannot do now is accept existing problems in our voting systems being exacerbated by the current pandemic.”
As they make their way through streets lined with modest bungalows, McCurtis and Cross repeatedly hear from their neighbors that they do not trust the voting system, or their votes do not matter.
Yet, Metcalfe Park resident Avis Wright needed no encouragement from Cross and McCurtis to vote. Normally a poll worker, Wright did not sign up this year because of the pandemic. She has already voted absentee.
“Voting is one of the most important things,” she said, “especially for us African-Americans … you know the vote is our voice. In a way, you don’t have no voice, you don’t exist.”
Claire Campbell and Laura Schultz
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.