As the April 7 election draws closer, more state leaders and activists are joining the call to postpone the election, at least until June. Among their most recent allies is Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee), who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19. Bowen joined Rev. Gregory Lewis, president of Souls to the Polls, and others on a video call Wednesday morning to discuss what’s at stake.
The gravity of what they’re asking isn’t lost on the reverend, nor are the many historical sacrifices that have been made by people to obtain the right to vote. Now, on top of voter suppression tactics which persist in America, Lewis says the spread of COVID-19 is, “almost making it an impossibility.”
It’s Lewis’ hope that Gov. Tony Evers will use his executive authority to postpone the election. “This year,” said Lewis, “voters across the country will elect leaders up and down the ballot who will fight for our community. But our communities don’t get to make the decision who those people are. Every person in Wisconsin should feel safe when they cast their ballot.”
As the pandemic unfolds, the difficulties faced by sick or infected residents in casting their votes will only grow, as will the danger of keeping the polls open for people who are not already infected. Most of Wisconsin’s positive cases of COVID-19 are in Milwaukee County. Of those, a large portion of those cases are scattered throughout Milwaukee’s African American north-side. Bowen who, along with Rev. Lewis, has been diagnosed with COVID-19, was mentored by someone who died of the disease.
“There have been three deaths in Milwaukee County and all of them have been black men,” said Bowen, “and we want black men in our community to take care of themselves. [And] do whatever is necessary to get through this tough time.” Calling the north-side a “magnet for the virus” Bowen warns, “as someone who’s experienced this first hand, this virus is no joke.” By March 25, there were 290 positive cases in Milwaukee County.
Bowen is concerned that holding an in-person election would only exacerbate the virus’ community spread. “I think it’s essential right about this point that we figure out a way to be able to safely and holistically hold our election so everybody can use their right to vote,” said Bowen. “With the important election that we have on the local level, on the state level, and the presidential primary as well, that we are able to move forward accordingly.” Particularly for economically stressed areas of the city, the representative knows that the priority for people is their health. “Let’s be careful as much as possible in putting the lives of our citizens first and foremost.”
COVID-19 can claim anyone as a host, and not everyone will show symptoms, according to state medical officials. Those that do, however, may find themselves unable to move around their home, let alone go out and vote. Lewis, who joined groups including Voces de la Frontera on a similar call Monday, finds it difficult to even get out of bed.
“Now me myself, there’s no way I can go out and do anything,” said Lewis. “I don’t even have the strength to do that. I don’t have the strength to go out and vote, all those things. And if there’s others out there just like me, it’s a shame that we get disregarded.” Just a few weeks ago, the reverend says he was ready to “knock down walls and move mountains.” Reflecting on his personal experience with the virus, Lewis said, “I think we need to take this more seriously.”
Although Evers has pressed Wisconsinites to vote absentee, Lewis remains concerned that current solutions are not equitable. He feels relying on voting by mail, “will not uplift every voter’s voice. It’s not the answer.” The closure of early voting sites, as well as unreliable access to the internet in some communities, only further hurts potential turnout.
Pablo Muirhead, a member of the Shorewood Board of Education, is concerned about difficulties in ensuring certain communities receive mailed ballots. “I’m particularly concerned about many of my own students who move,” he explained. “Their residence changes more frequently than those in other areas, and that causes getting a ballot sent to their homes to be much more challenging.”
Another often overlooked population is the homeless. Muirhead, who has also tested positive for the virus, worries that it will be difficult to reach homeless people with mailed ballots. “I have students, hard working smart students, that live in their cars. And we need to wait until we can ensure that everyone has equal access, has a right to vote.”
In-person voting also presents logistical challenges for the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Not only are many poll workers older and more vulnerable individuals, but access to proper and constant sanitation is also a concern. During the Monday call to postpone the vote, organizers also noted that an influx of absentee ballot requests is overwhelming the local ability to count them by April 7. Other organizers raised concerns about the constantly shifting situation with COVID-19, and the difficulty of disseminating updates to voters vulnerable to disenfranchisement. Rev. Lewis highlighted the importance of churches, which are now closed, in voter mobilization efforts.
“It’s not only a right, but it’s become really a privilege for folks to be able to vote,” said Muirhead, “that’s why those voter mobilization efforts, which have come to a grinding halt for obvious reasons … we need to have some time to be able to ensure that everyone can vote.”
Holding a regular election violates the stay-at-home order issued by the governor, Muirhead added. It’s a public-health risk and, advocates say, the priority for the election should be to ensure equal access is enjoyed by all.