Story Update: Milwaukee’s polling places have been further reduced from 12 to 5. A special session of the Wisconsin State Legislature was ordered by Governor Tony Evers to consider cancelling the elections and moving them to a different date. The Republican controlled legislature convened and voted not to take up the matter. On April 6, the governor announced an order to postpone the election until June. Later the same day, the state Supreme Court overturned his order. Later in the day, “the U.S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote overturned lower-court orders extending by six days the deadline for mailing absentee ballots.” (Wall Street Journal)
The state of Wisconsin plans to go forward with holding its spring elections on April 7, a combination of presidential primaries, statewide races and local non-partisan elections, according to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers. Evers has consistently maintained that elections will be held in a safe, consistent and democratic manner, but that hardly appears to be the case, specifically in Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee. The city of Milwaukee has a long history of low voter turnout, voter suppression and unequal access, problems which will be accentuated in an election slated to be held during a pandemic. Voter participation is predicted to be below 20 percent in Milwaukee and below 40 percent statewide, both of which are optimistic figures. Simply put, the voting infrastructure in Milwaukee and Wisconsin as a whole is not prepared to conduct free, fair and democratic elections at this time.
In Milwaukee, which usually has more than 180 polling stations for its 600,000 residents, there will be only 12 locations. Yes, you read that correctly, Milwaukee is shutting down approximately 170 polling stations. “The City of Milwaukee has maintained a long-standing tradition of voting sites that are very often within walking distance of a voter’s home. We will not be able to do that on April 7,” stated Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Neil Albrecht.
Milwaukee is also of the nation’s most segregated cities with a history of institutionalized redlining, unfair housing practices and racially motivated violence. These serious symptoms of a racist society remain fully intact today and it is expected that this reduction in polling places will effect oppressed, working-class communities of color on the North and South Sides disproportionately. While lack of access to voting rights is nothing new to these communities because of strict voter ID laws, uninformed canceling of voter registration and endemically non-competitive elections, holding an election during a pandemic is in its own category in terms of non-democratic practices.
According to the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, Milwaukee only has about 100,000 absentee ballots on hand to be sent out to voters who cannot get to a polling station or do not wish to put themselves at risk. Milwaukee has a potential voting population of 400,000, meaning that only one quarter of potential voters will get the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot. Clearly this is an extremely undemocratic process that Wisconsin intends to embark upon.
The North Side of Milwaukee, a primarily working-class African American district, has seen the highest reduction of polling places per-person of any area in Milwaukee. This area has the highest number and density of COVID-19 cases in part because many people are being forced to continue to work during the rapid spread of the virus without hazard pay or proper sanitary conditions.
Voters in Milwaukee specifically will continue to be disenfranchised, while people across the state of Wisconsin, in rural and urban areas, will have to decide between the risk of venturing out in public and potentially being exposed to COVID-19, and staying home and hoping that an absentee ballot will be sent out and actually counted after being returned.
“I think it’s unacceptable,” Ashley Daniels, a Milwaukee resident told Liberation News. “Milwaukee already suffers from voter suppression. Our very own governor says we should practice social distancing, and keeping the same scheduled elections would only make the current COVID-19 crisis worse. Overnight the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases multiplied exponentially in the state. With Milwaukee’s case number being nearly 4 times the size in comparison to the rest of Wisconsin. Cutting the number of polling places will concentrate so many more people into those few places, while also making access to the polls much more difficult to the city’s most vulnerable voters.”
While much of the criticism is falling on Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, there are many in Milwaukee who believe that Mayor Tom Barrett’s response to the pandemic has been found lacking. “The state government should have established an election pandemic task force to determine how best to implement relevant policy and recommendations to protect the election,” community activist Robert Miranda told Liberation News. “But Milwaukee officials have shown a lack of understanding of the laws and emergency rules applicable to their jurisdiction. Because of this they are lacking appropriate adjustments to ensure that our vote is protected and counted.”
What has become overwhelmingly clear though is that none of the governmental entities that supposedly operate on behalf of the people of Wisconsin have demonstrated that they have the capacity to handle the spread of this deadly virus, much less conduct an election right in the middle of it.
The impending problem of trying to cast a ballot in Milwaukee illustrates the social decay that has become more visible due to the spread of the COVID-19. The handling of this pandemic in the United States has demonstrated that the capitalist system is crumbling and completely unable to save the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society, or provide the basic necessities of life for the vast majority of the working class. “This pandemic exposed to the world the failure of the United States market-oriented health system focused on supply and demand instead of focusing on serving the common good,” said Miranda “Predatory capitalism is the only benefactor during this time of suffering and death.”