A moment of clarity on voting rights

Marquette Poll’s Charles Franklin goes off script

March 4, 2022 6:22 am
Voting Cancelled sign via Flickr

Voting Cancelled sign via Flickr

During Thursday’s Milwaukee Press Club panel discussion about the latest Marquette University Law School poll, Charles Franklin, the poll’s director and one of the most respected pollsters in the country, took a rare break from his usual careful neutrality to answer a question about his childhood in the segregated south in the 1950s and 60s. 

As a kid in Alabama during the height of the civil rights movement, “George Wallace was my governor most of that time,” Franklin said. “I grew up in the 11th most heavily Black county in the country and the 17th poorest county in the country. I couldn’t live through that without having some feelings.”

Politics, he explained, “just sort of surrounded you in that time and the morality of it surrounded you.”

“I very rarely take any kind of political stand,” Franklin said, “but coming out of that, my sense that the denial of voting rights in that period was the biggest assault of voting fraud in the country — and I think giving people the right to vote is so fundamental to our society — that that’s the one thing that I’ll get up on a soapbox and talk a little bit about.”

Franklin’s use of the term “fraud” to describe segregationists’ efforts to prevent Black people from voting during the civil rights era was no accident. As a pollster he is a student of language, carefully crafting his polling questions with an ear for subtleties. In this case, he was turning the recent use of the term “voting fraud” by Wisconsin Republicans on its head. For the Republicans of today are surely doing what the segregationists in the South were doing in the 1950s and 60s — undermining voting rights in an attempt to reduce the competitiveness of elections and cling to power.

One bright spot in the latest Marquette poll is the surprising news that Republican voters, a majority of whom lack confidence in the integrity of elections after more than two years of nonstop stolen-election propaganda, have shifted from about 70% doubtful to about 60% doubtful.

“It’s still a majority, even a solid majority of Republicans that say they have little or no confidence in the election results. But it is moving in a direction counter to what you might expect, given developments in the governor’s race [where GOP candidate Timothy Ramthun has been calling for the decertification of Wisconsin’s electoral votes] and the Gableman investigation and so on,” Franklin said. 

A large majority of the general voting population, meanwhile — about two thirds — continues to have confidence in the integrity of elections. Unfortunately, that doesn’t much matter to Republican candidates, since hyperpartisanship has extinguished crossover voting. 

As Franklin explained it, there is almost no incentive for politicians to try to appeal to voters outside their own partisan silos. As in the civil rights era, voters are divided into fiercely opposed tribal camps.

This is evident in politicians’ approval ratings, which have been on a downward trajectory since the late 1990s and especially in the 2000s, Franklin said. Bill Clinton had approval ratings among Republicans in the 20s and 30s throughout his presidency, he noted. “But in the Obama term, and then in the Trump term, we saw that the opposite party was at 10% or below the whole time. And it didn’t really matter that the economy was recovering through the eight years of Obama. Republicans didn’t give him any more credit when we killed Osama bin Laden — there was no bump in approval from Republicans … With Trump it’s just the opposite. Democrats were at less than 10% and stayed there no matter what happened.”

“Negative partisanship,” the term of art for people’s absolute rejection of the other side, means politicians aren’t really trying to appeal to majority opinion anymore. Why bother?

Ginning up the intensity of the base while trying to discourage people on the other side from voting — plus endlessly litigating the outcome of elections — is clearly the GOP strategy. 

And that’s what’s taking us back to the bad old days of the attack on voting rights. 


Political scientist Meghan Tinsley makes a direct connection between Republicans’ current voter-suppression tactics and the violent  suppression of Black voters in the past. In an article describing the arrest and imprisonment of Crystal Mason, an African American mother of three sentenced to five years in prison in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2018 for the crime of casting an invalid ballot, she compares the harassment and intimidation of voters of color today to the arrest of Hartman Turnbow, the first African-American to register to vote in Mississippi in 1963, whose home was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Keeping Black people from voting was a way of enforcing the old, white supremacist order, Tinsely writes. And it still is.

“The attempt by African-Americans to secure suffrage, and to lay claim to full citizenship, is a crucial component of the long civil rights movement. In turn, the recent acceleration of voter suppression — fuelled by public fear, sanctioned by the judiciary, and supported by policing — is the latest manifestation of a centuries-long, distinctly American ideology of white supremacy,” writes Tinsley, a Brit.

The problem we face as a society is not that tens of thousands of people — especially people in Democratic cities where voters of color are concentrated are “stealing” elections , as Gableman suggests. The problem is that those voters pose a threat to politicians who don’t represent the interests of the majority. 

The Legislature has clearly neglected those interests, refusing to take up legislation to address issues a majority of citizens care about and that ought to be solvable on a bipartisan basis. Among these is cannabis legalization, which for the first time received majority support among Republicans in the latest Marquette poll. Other issues the Legislature has not moved on include adequate funding for local public schools and removing dangerous toxins from our drinking water.

Instead, the Legislature has focused like a laser on inflating Gableman’s conspiracy theories and making it harder for people to vote. 

The explicitly racial aspect of this effort is unmistakable. 

Leaked documents from the Trump campaign show it used demographic data to systematically deter voters in Milwaukee’s primarily Black neighborhoods from voting in 2016.

Election law changes, from Wisconsin’s complicated voter I.D. statute to the recent raft of proposals to ban dropboxes, impose new requirements that could disqualify ballots for small typos and make it much harder to vote absentee, all add up to voter suppression that is intended to hit low-income and minority voters the hardest. 

The voting rights struggle that lit people on fire during the civil rights era that Franklin remembers so vividly is still alive today.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.