This story was originally published by Wisconsin Watch.
Around noon on an overcast April Election Day, dozens of canvassers returned to a second-floor conference room of a church on Milwaukee’s North Side.
They were dressed for the weather: Layers, winter hats and a few with ponchos. Within an hour, they would be back out knocking on doors. Walking a line between helpful resources and yet another person asking them to vote again.
“We had four elections just in 2022. Four,” the group’s leader Angela Lang told them. “The last one was in November. We slept for like a day, and we’re back at it. If we were doing all of this, imagine being a voter that’s not involved and engaged.”
The gathering of Black Leaders Organizing Communities represents a bulwark against an alarming trend in Wisconsin electoral politics: For nearly 20 years, Wisconsin was a model for making voting easy, with the state’s same-day registration a major factor.
In 1996, Wisconsin ranked fourth among the states for ease of registering and voting, according to the Cost of Voting Index. In 2022, Wisconsin was among the most difficult places, ranking 47th.
Disparities in voting access is particularly pronounced among Black and Latino voters, according to recent research from UW-Madison.
How it’s gotten more difficult to vote in Wisconsin
The Index, started by researchers at Northern Illinois University, ranks each state using 33 different variables, with registration deadlines carrying the most weight. As other states began to adopt measures Wisconsin has, such as same-day voter registration, Wisconsin’s ranking dipped, but remained in the top 10.
Then Republicans took control of the Legislature and governor’s office after the 2010 election and implemented several measures that made voting more difficult. They extended residency requirements, shortened the period for early voting, increased residency requirements from 10 to 28 days and enacted the state’s voter ID law.
“As soon as Wisconsin adopted that, it really caused the state to drop in accessibility,” said Michael Pomante, a Jacksonville University political science professor and co-author of the Index. “It needs to be said or at least noted to Wisconsinites that their voting has become significantly more difficult for their voters over the years compared to other states.”
Republicans enacted the restrictions in the name of election security. Then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, described the voter ID law specifically as making it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
There’s no evidence that the laws have significantly affected election fraud.
From 2012 through 2022, there were only 192 election fraud cases, or 0.0006% of all votes cast, Wisconsin Watch previously reported. The data didn’t show that the new laws had reduced the number of cases, the majority of which related to voting by those on felony probation.
Additional barriers for Black and Hispanic voters
Barriers to voting disproportionately affect certain racial groups, according to research from UW-Madison journalism and mass communications professor Michael Wagner.
Black voters spent about 9 minutes getting to the polls during the 2018 midterm election, compared with about 6.5 minutes for non-Black voters. Researchers also found that Hispanic voters spent about 11 minutes in line, more than twice the wait for non-Hispanic voters.
In researching the 2022 midterm election, Wagner’s team found Black voters spent 10.8 minutes getting to the polls and 15.6 minutes waiting in line. For white voters, those times were 6.8 minutes and 7.7 minutes.
“It’s really a tale of two states. On the one hand, Wisconsin has incredibly high voter turnout,” Wagner said, adding that same-day registration and tradition of civic engagement help. “But things are clearly getting worse for Black, Hispanic and lower income voters.”
Closed polling locations and continued underfunding of elections could help explain growing times from 2018 to 2022, he said.
The Cost of Voting Index researchers have linked increased difficulty and a drop in voter participation, but impact varies between groups.
“It actually disenfranchises the undereducated and the lower socioeconomic populations more,” Pomante said. “But if we were to strip those things out and were just looking at racial features, when states have made voting more difficult, it actually spurs Black voters to come to the polls more.”
One reason for that might be the role of community organizers like BLOC, Pomante said.
Wisconsin’s increasingly divisive and contentious politics may also help turnout, Wagner said.
“More people see it as valuable to have their voice heard on Election Day,” he said. “Even if it’s harder, many people still show up.”
Current proposals to address voting issues
Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, proposed a range of voting-related changes in his most recent budget proposal that would elevate the state’s Cost of Voting Index ranking.
Evers has proposed that the Department of Transportation provide identifying information to the Wisconsin Elections Commission so it can automatically register eligible voters. The proposal also allows people to opt out.
The governor also proposed removing restrictions on how early a voter can return their absentee ballot and lowering the residency requirement from 28 days to 10 days. Evers’ budget also includes changes to the type of ID technical college or university students can use and would restore previous requirements that high schools be used for voter registration, something Republicans ended in 2011.
The budget proposal also includes additional funding for local election officials and would allow election workers to start processing absentee ballots before Election Day. Republicans plan to remove all those and hundreds of other measures from the budget bill during the first votes in the process Tuesday.
Last year, Evers vetoed a number of election-related bills passed by the Republican Legislature. They would have prevented a voter’s friend or family member from returning their absentee ballot, required clerks to verify voters are U.S. citizens, and given the Legislature control over guidance to clerks from the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
State Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, said that if there are issues with the time it takes voters to cast ballots, those are “the fault of local municipalities failing to address the needs of their communities.”
“This trend of higher participation holds up across nationwide elections since passing Voter ID,” he said. “Wisconsin voters routinely rebut the premise of voter disenfranchisement through their actions.”
How BLOC and community organizers find solutions
BLOC doesn’t plan to put politics on the shelf until the 2024 spring primary. Politics and voter education is baked into everything it does, Lang said.
“If we’re having conversations in the field about what does it look like for the Black community to thrive, nine times out of 10, those responses have a political connection, whether it’s the city budget that’s going to come out this fall or it’s the state budget,” she said weeks after the election.
BLOC reaches voters by building trust. It intentionally set up its headquarters in the 53206 ZIP code, among the most-incarcerated places in the state. BLOC’s members grew up in the community and share the same experiences as the people whose doors they knock on.
They see voters walk into their polling place carrying BLOC literature handed out or placed in doors.
But it wasn’t always like this, Lang said, recalling the group’s first election in November 2017 when residents viewed them like just another group dropping in.
Attitudes toward the group changed once people saw that they didn’t leave.
“The team (here at BLOC) came up with this idea last year to do monthly neighborhood cleanups as a way to engage residents around other issues and do something that’s beautifying the community,” Lang said. “I think by just having a constant presence allows us to be those trusted messengers.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Leave a Reply