Milwaukee County Board split on ballot referenda for November

Cannabis legalization and banning assault weapons made it, but abortion was struck from the ballot

By: - August 1, 2022 6:25 am
Voting rights activists and others gathering at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting in July, 2022. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Voting rights activists and others gathering at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting in July, 2022. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

November referendum proposals have caused a stir on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. Two referenda, one dealing with banning assault-style weapons and another regarding cannabis legalization, passed, while another referendum that would have asked voters about abortion bans was rejected. Although the passage of the two referenda has earned the praise of some board members, others have lambasted them as “political.”

On Thursday, the board adopted a proposal by Sup. Dyango Zerpa asking voters whether they support the state Legislature banning assault weapons. The proposal, which passed a 12-5 board vote, specified the ban would affect the “import, sale, manufacture, transfer or possession of semi-automatic ‘military-style’ firearms whose prohibition is allowed under the Wisconsin and United States Constitutions.”

marijuana symbol of a pot cannabis leaf with legal text in neon lights
Getty images

In a statement Zerpa said the referendum “gives voters a platform to say enough is enough when it comes to gun violence in this country.” Sup. Zerpa continued: “As a nation, and as a state, we have witnessed far too many tragedies unfold in which the gunman responsible is using an assault weapon to inflict harm on innocent people and children. I am confident that this data will show that the people want common sense gun reform. We will take the data from this referendum directly to the State Legislature and will use it to propel change.”

A study by the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation analyzing gun violence in 64 countries ranked the U.S. eighth worst on the list. Beating out Chile, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Greece and others in firearm homicides per 100,000 people, the U.S. is also an outlier among other peer countries. “Age-adjusted firearm homicide rates in the U.S. are 13 times greater than they are in France, and 22 times greater than the European Union as a whole,” it states. “The U.S. has 23 times the rate of firearm homicide seen in Australia.” Over the first two decades of the 21st century, Australia has adopted very restrictive firearm laws.

While the country continues to process the killing of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas by a mass shooter armed with an AR-style rifle, local communities also feel daily effects. To date, the Milwaukee Police Department is tracking 134 homicides, representing a 40% increase from this time last year. So far this year, the department has documented 486 non-fatal shootings. In years past, handguns have been responsible for a majority of Milwaukee’s shootings.

Supervisor Dyango Zerpa (Photo | Milwaukee County)
Supervisor Dyango Zerpa (Photo | Milwaukee County)

AR-15 style rifles gained new infamy in Wisconsin after the 2020 unrest in Kenosha. Protests filled the city during the day while curfews, unrest, and property destruction occurred at night. After a call to arms was issued on social media, armed groups arrived in Kenosha stating they wanted to protect property and confront protesters. Among them was then-17year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who arrived armed with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle. Rittenhouse shot and killed two unarmed protesters and injured another. A trial in November of 2021 acquitted the teenager, and the judge in the case also threw out weapons charges.

Sup. Steve Taylor denounced both the cannabis and assault weapon referenda. Taylor said the referenda were adopted “under the disguise of garnering public input when in fact they are politically motivated and are issues in which the Board cannot effectuate policy change.” Taylor asked why the board included the questions without the ability to set policy. “Because these two ballot measures are meant to ramp up the Democratic vote to re-elect Gov. Evers and defeat Sen. [Ron] Johnson.” He added, “decisions like this are unfortunate because it takes focus away from the important work that still needs to be done as well as pits us against the Republican-controlled Legislature who controls Milwaukee County’s financial future.”

The two referenda cost taxpayers $36,000. Conservative members of the board celebrated the rejection of a referendum that asked whether a Wisconsin statute that bans abortion in most cases should be repealed. Supervisors Deanna Alexander and Patti Logsdon said they were glad  the question was struck from the November ballot.

Supervisor Deanna Alexander (Photo | Milwaukee County)
Supervisor Deanna Alexander (Photo | Milwaukee County)

“This question was misleading to our constituents, and the referendum itself was not legally binding,” said Alexander. “I’d like to thank my colleagues who voted against the effort to put abortion on the ballot as a county-only question that references state law inaccurately.” The referendum question referred to a ban on all abortion, without exception. “Without statewide data the referendum has very limited potential uses and is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Alexander said. “I highly value bodily autonomy and hearing the will of the public, but it must be under informed circumstances, not a one-liner that takes advantage of women afraid of what the future might hold. The question would have failed to recognize that current law allows abortion to save the life of the mother, and that dismembering or poisoning a fetus is not medically required in order to end a woman’s pregnancy.”

Logsdon also took issue with the question’s framing. “Not only does this resolution not respect the sanctity of life, but it wasn’t even accurate and I’m proud to have stood with the voices of those who could not speak for themselves.” The resolution failed to pass an 11-6 vote. Sups. Shawn Rolland, Anthony Staskunas, Liz Sumner and Steve Taylor joined Logsdon and Alexander in voting against the referendum.

The three Republican candidates for governor, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, businessman Tim Michels, and state Rep. Tim Ranthun, have all expressed opposition to expanding exemptions to the state’s abortion ban. The 1849 law was re-activated after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and makes abortion a crime except to save the life of the mother.


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.