By Senator Lena C. Taylor
It’s no secret that after the Spring 2020 election in Milwaukee, I have been committed to closing loopholes and shoring up processes to protect Wisconsin voters. This week, a public hearing on Senate Bill 366, brought us another step closer.
As a refresher…. a nationwide health pandemic threw Wisconsin’s Spring 2020 election into a tailspin. At the time, 112 Wisconsinites had died from COVID-19 or related causes. Sixty-eight of those deaths were from Milwaukee County. Some 1200 confirmed cases were in the city. We were in a state of emergency.
As reported by the Brennan Center for Justice, on March 27, Gov. Evers called for every voter in the state to be sent an absentee ballot. The Republican-controlled legislature rejected the idea. Evers, unsuccessfully, tried to postpone the election.
Worried about the staggering loss of poll workers, due to fears of the spread of COVID-19, the Governor and local officials were concerned about the ability to carry out local elections. Evers even tried to move the date of the election to June 9th, but the Supreme Court struck down his order. Doing what he could, Governor Evers offered up the use of the Wisconsin National Guard to help municipalities execute local elections. The City of Milwaukee did not take full advantage of his offer.
Milwaukee voters went to their polling locations to find nearly 97% of them closed. In the rest of the state, the average closures were 11 percent. As an example, the City of Madison retained 66 of their usual 92 polling centers. In Milwaukee, we had just five open polling locations out of our previous 180 polling locations.
The result of this set of closings were disenfranchised voters. After a review of the 2020 Wisconsin election, the Brennan Center found that polling place consolidation reduced voter turnout by nearly 9%, and that Black voter turnout was especially depressed from these closures.
The movement of this bill through committee is another big step. We need to guarantee that no matter what part of the state you vote in, the decisions regarding access to polling locations will be consistent. We should never again see a time when voters show up to their regular polling locations, only to find the doors locked and no real information on where they should go to cast a ballot. Voter suppression, whether deliberate or unintentional, is unacceptable.
I remember the frustrated and angry residents, who waited in line for hours to vote. I promised not to forget the number of people who were turned away at polling locations and redirected across town. I carry with me the defeated voters, who threw their hands up in frustration, when they realized that because of the outrageous number of polling location closures, poor notification of the changes, and other election problems, they would miss the opportunity to vote. This can never happen again.