Voces de la Frontera joined other groups who’ve spent the last several months organizing for voter turnout on a virtual press conference Monday morning, calling on Gov. Tony Evers to postpone Wisconsin’s primary election on April 7. While preserving the democratic process is crucial, how and when people will be allowed to vote is now largely dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are calling, with our allied organizations, on the leadership of Gov. Evers to postpone the April 7 election,” said Voces de la Frontera Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz, “to ensure that we have both a safe and a fair election.” The Latinx advocacy group has worked hard to organize the vote in Milwaukee’s Spanish-speaking communities.
While the work is important, this year, Neumann-Ortiz notes that many Latinx voters are “new and infrequent” voters. “For example,” she said during the call, “there are 150,000 eligible Latinx voters in Wisconsin, 40% of them who are millennial voters.”
Older voters may feel uncomfortable with the use of technology needing to request a ballot be sent to their home, she added, while families from low-income areas might not have access to WiFi, or even smartphones or computers. “Going to the libraries is no longer an option,” said Neumann-Ortiz.
“Recent changes to the electoral process due to the coronavirus outbreak are happening too fast to communicate that information to those voters effectively, and at scale,” she pointed out. For example, on Friday a federal judge extended the deadline to register online to vote until March 30.
The organizers on the call said they learned that same morning that all early voting sites in Milwaukee are also shutting down. Even though many voters have requested absentee ballots, for residents like those Voces has reached, there just isn’t enough time to inform everyone about changes to the process.
“Most Latino voters rely on same-day voter registration to cast their ballots,” explains Neumann-Ortiz. However, with people now wary of gathering in groups, and questions about whether there will be enough poll workers and a sufficient supply of hand sanitizer, Voces and other pro-democracy groups are worried that many people will be discouraged from voting.
Sandy Pasch, a community health nurse and former legislator, echoed the point. “I want to address the need to delay and provide time to safely manage this election,” said Pasch. “The 6-foot social distance rule and limits on sizes of social gatherings are key to control of this pandemic. Because they are the only tools we currently have. There are no known antiviral medications nor vaccines to treat or to prevent COVID-19.”
She commented on the many logistical challenges involved in going forward with the April 7 election, from having monitors to ensure that social distancing is being practiced, to the problem of excessively long lines. “Even if the weather on April 7 is ideal,” said Pasch, “how can we expect people, elderly, voters with children, to stand apart outside in lines, snaking around our neighborhoods?” Long lines at the polls have been reported nationwide in other states’ presidential primaries.
If an absentee ballot election is the safest option, Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters, said Wisconsin needs more time. “For instance in Madison,” said Cronmiller, “the volume of absentee ballot requests the clerk’s office is dealing with is overwhelming and unsustainable.”
Even though staff, temporary employees, and even retired clerks are combing through the requests, they are, “barely making a dent,” she said. She highlighted the efforts of just three dozen volunteers processing the flood of requests. “WisVote, I am told, was not built for this volume and has been slow, and at times crashing,” says Cronmiller.
“How are smaller municipalities with only one half-time clerk managing given these new demands for absentee ballots?” The backlog is so big, she wonders if people who send requests at the April 2 deadline will make it by mail to a clerk’s office by April 7. “This confusion does not give voters the confidence they need to safely participate in our election.”
With several states already announcing they’ll postpone their elections, Cronmiller and her allies in the voter-organizing community hope Wisconsin will follow suit. Attorney William Sulton, legal redress chair of the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP, also described holding an election on April 7 as “unsafe and unfair.” Sulton argued that “the government has the ability and the obligation to expand mail voting. Our democracy depends on it.”
For some in the call, the pandemic has already hit as close to home as possible. Reverend Greg Lewis, who has worked to rally the Wisconsin vote for the 2020 election, is at home sick and quarantined. Lewis, as well as some other Milwaukee-area religious leaders, believe that holding an April 7 election would be unsafe.
“All of our churches are closed,” he explained. “And the churches, they are the sources for pulling all of our people together to get out the vote. And that has become an impossibility.” Lewis fears, “our community will be forced to decide between their right to vote and their own safety.”
Right now, basic survival concerns like getting a paycheck are the top priorities for people in the struggling communities where the organizers on the call are seeking to get out the vote.
“At Souls to the Polls we have a simple mission and hope for our future,” said Lewis, “we have said that we’re an army of faith, and we want to show the power of 100,000 souls to the polls. And that would certainly be taken away if that vote becomes due on April 7.” For people who are sick or recovering from COVID-19, the question of how to vote is further complicated by their diagnosis.
Milwaukee BLOC, a group that has been organizing voters in the city’s African American neighborhoods, is also not keen on an April 7 election.
“To ensure the safety of the people and the integrity of the election we believe that it should be postponed,” Rick Banks, BLOC’s political director told Wisconsin Examiner. “People have been advised to stay home, early voting locations have been closed or not opened statewide and the system is overwhelmed with absentee ballot requests. This, in addition to concerns about having enough staff to work the polls, as most workers are senior and the most vulnerable.” Banks hopes that the election can be delayed as the pandemic moves through Wisconsin, with the possibility of an all-absentee ballot election “in the next few months.”
Gov. Tony Evers has been encouraging Wisconsinites to register absentee for the last couple of weeks. As other states and cities initiated lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19, Evers pressed the importance of voting. “We have a democracy to participate in,” Evers said recently. Tuesday he once again stressed his staunch opposition to moving the election because of all the local offices and the Wisconsin Supreme Court race that are on the ballot in addition to the presidential primary.
Nevertheless, the governor has also pledged to listen to Wisconsin’s health experts as to the best measures to contain the virus, and shepherd the state through the pandemic.