Community leaders push early voting in Milwaukee

For communities of color, it feels like a lot is on the line

By: - February 16, 2023 6:45 am
Milwaukee residents gather for an early voting rally at the Midtown Center. (Photo | SEUI Wisconsin State Council)

Milwaukee residents gather for an early voting rally at the Midtown Center. (Photo | SEUI Wisconsin State Council)

Community activists, elected officials and Milwaukee residents gathered at the city’s Midtown Center Wednesday to encourage people to vote early. Early voting for the 2023 spring primary opened on Feb. 7 and will run until Feb. 18 in Milwaukee. (Check the website for information on voting hours in each municipality, absentee voting, and where to vote.) Voters will cast ballots in races for common councils, school boards and the Wisconsin Supreme Court as well weighing in on advisory ballot measures.

Milwaukee Ald. Mark Chambers, who represents District 2, stressed the importance of voting. Speaking during the Midtown Center early voting rally, Chambers reminded the crowd that in the November election, Democratic candidate Mandela Barnes lost by less than 1%, or just over 27,000 votes, to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. “We could’ve had our first Black senator in D.C. representing us,” said Chambers. “I just can’t stress how important early voting is.”

Ald. Mark Chambers (Photo | SEIU Wisconsin State Council)
Ald. Mark Chambers (Photo | SEIU Wisconsin State Council)

The Midtown Center is one of seven polling locations scattered throughout Milwaukee. Three of the city’s vacant common council seats, representing over 120,000 people, are up for grabs. Each of those districts have stiff competition in the primary. There are five  candidates in District 1, seven in District 5, and eight in District 9. All of the vacant common council seats represent citizens in northern sections of the city. There is also a  special election to fill the state Senate seat in District 8, left by out-going Republican Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). All three of the  areas without common council representation border Chambers’ own district.

“If you got able legs to walk, if you can crawl, come and do your duty and vote,” Chamber sadi. Ald. JoCasta Zamparripa, who represents a district on Milwaukee’s South Side, also spoke at the rally. “We all know that we’re being attacked,” said Zamparripa. She was referring to  comments made by Wisconsin Elections Commission member Robert Spindell. In a December email, Spindell boasted of how Republican efforts to suppress turnout in Milwaukee’s Black and Latino communities resulted in 37,000 fewer people casting ballots in those areas. After the story was first reported by Urban Milwaukee, Spindell shrugged off calls that he should  to resign.

“Conservatives are bragging about our low voter turnout,” said Zamparripa. “They have been coming for us, trying to intimidate voters.” Zamparripa called on citizens to honor Black History Month by voting in the 2023 primary on Feb. 21, or voting early. Speaking to fellow Latino citizens, Zamparripa noted that while Latinos are the fastest growing constituency, their communities also struggle with low voter turnout. “We have got to change that,” said Zamparripa. “Lets push back against the voter intimidation.”

“We have to understand that if our vote wasn’t important, then they wouldn’t be trying to stop us,” said community activist Sedan Smith during the rally, aiming his message at city youth. Smith is affiliated with several community organizations including All of Us or None and Invisible Youth. He’s also the brother of 23-year-old Syville Smith, who was killed  by a Milwaukee police officer in 2016, triggering unrest in the Sherman Park neighborhood.

“The rebellious nature of our community and our youth, it seems like we love to fight,” said Smith. “Well this is our fight right here. This is something that they’re trying to take away from you right here: Your right to vote.” Smith pointed to the Supreme Court race, with two liberal judges and two conservative judges are vying for one  seat. Wisconsin’s conservative-aligned justices currently hold a 4-3 advantage. One of the two liberal judges has a chance to flip a seat in the state’s highest court. “We need to be the ones who control the people in those seats,” said Smith. “We fill those jails up. We are the ones that are most affected by incarceration. … the highest rate for African American incarceration in the nation is here in Milwaukee.”

Ald. JoCasta Zamparripa (Photo | SEIU Wisconsin State Council)
Ald. JoCasta Zamparripa (Photo | SEIU Wisconsin State Council)

Clayborn Benson, a historian from the American Black Historical Society, spoke of voter suppression through the lens of segregation. Milwaukee is often cited as one of the most segregated cities in the country. “The word tied to African American and Latino people is ‘disenfranchised,’” said Benson. “The fight goes on.” Benson stressed that “this fight is not just about today. It is over the entire life history of this state.”

Milwaukee Ald. Miele Coggs added, “One of the fights, one of the struggles, that so many of our ancestors fought for was the right to vote.”

“These votes we cast nowadays, or the votes we choose not to cast, have an impact on whether that history gets wiped away or not,” said Coggs.

From school board elections to incarceration to the vacant council seats, the issues at stake affect people directly. “What’s before us right now is about community, it’s about labor, it’s about racism, it’s about fighting back and stop letting people walk all over us,” said Rev. Greg Lewis of Power To The Polls. Lewis is also president of Souls to the Polls, which offers free rides to the polls anywhere in the Milwaukee area. “All we got to do is go right over there and vote,” said Lewis, pointing toward the Midtown center.

Following the rally a the group of activists, religious leaders and residents marched to the Midtown center to cast early votes. The Midtown Shopping Center, Zeidler Municipal Building, and Zablocki Library polling sites are open weekdays from 9a.m.- 6p.m, as well as weekends from 10a.m. – 3p.m.. The Good Hope, Mitchell Street, Villard Square and Washington Park libraries will be open weekdays 12p.m.- 5p.m. and on Saturday 10a.m.- 3p.m.. Check which polling site is nearest to you here. Voter I.D. in the form of a Wisconsin drivers license — even if revoked or suspended — is accepted, as well as a Wisconsin I.D. card, military I.D., or U.S. passport.


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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.