“I’ve Been Trying to Vote All Year”: Wisconsin’s Diseased Democracy

A first person account by Mia Noel, with questions from Dayna Long

DL: Can you share a little bit about yourself? How long have you lived in Milwaukee and what do you do for work?

MN: I moved to Milwaukee when I was five and aside from college and a short time in North Carolina, have lived here since, so about 30 years. I manage a health education program for youth that are 11-19 years old. Thankfully, I still have my job, so I am working full-time through this pandemic.

DL: Tell me about your experience trying to vote in this Spring election from start to finish. When did you first try to get a hold of a ballot and how long did you ultimately spend waiting at the polls to vote in person? Any other challenges when it came to voting this year? 

MN: Spring Election like today, April 7th? Because the whole year has been a farce. Wisconsin removed 200,000 voters from the rolls in January. I received a letter saying I was probably removed from the registered voters list. I re-registered online in January and my polling location moved. 

On February 18th, the Spring Primary, I went to the website to check my polling location since it was my first time going there and the website was down. It crashed on election day. I shared a pic online and said “This does not bode well for electoral politics in 2020.” 

For the April 7th election, I knew enough to ask for an absentee ballot back in the middle of March. It never came. Last week, Gov. Evers asked the legislature to meet and move the election, they did nothing so on Sunday, April 5th, I went to try to vote in the early voting drive-up option downtown. The line was 8 blocks long at 3 pm and voting closed at 5 pm. It was crawling along. I took a video to try and show people what was happening and left. I could have stayed but it would have been hours and I hoped Speaker Vos and Senator Fitzgerald would make an ethical decision, that somehow the election would be moved. 

On Monday, April 6th, when Gov. Evers asked that the election be moved to June, I was so ridiculously relieved that finally something sensible was happening. Then the WI court met VIRTUALLY to decide that the election should continue. In one day, we went from a reasonable election date to needing to scramble to make a plan to vote “safely” (whatever that means) in the middle of a pandemic. 

My partner and I argued about this, actually we are still arguing about this. Aside from grocery shopping for family and friends and walks, I have stayed home since March 13th. Going out in public around hundreds of people was not an easy decision. But even if I hadn’t voted, I would have gone to the polling location to see just how little this state cares about its people. 

I wore a mask and some gloves. I wore clothes I could easily take off and wash when I got home. I got up early and tried to be one of the first in line. I got there a little after 7am, polls opened at 7. I had to find parking and walk to the end of the line, by the time I got there, the line was 6 blocks long. Everyone standing 6 feet apart. It was absurd. Most wearing masks, or some sort of scarf or fabric over their faces, gloves, all trying to keep themselves and others safe. I waited in line for about 3 hours. It moved really slowly at first. I saw a family carry a collapsible chair so that an older person in their group could sit sometimes. 

Someone was playing music for us across the street from the park, which I appreciated so much. Poll workers and volunteers came down the line, checking that people were in the right location, that they knew their ward, that they had their own individual pens and masks. Everyone was pleasant and I made sure to tell them all thank you but overall it felt tense. I just was so mad and hopeless about the whole situation. 

This isn’t brave, this isn’t what democracy is. This is unconscionable. This is an abomination. This is never what democracy should be.

Once I got to the front of the line, we entered the gym and the line moved much faster. There was obviously a system in place. You stood on an x so you kept 6 ft apart, the workers were efficient, and everything got wiped down between voters. I was probably inside the gym for less than 30 minutes. I tried to let everyone know on Facebook what was happening, I shared pictures and videos. I didn’t want to pressure folks to vote, it’s a risk going out in public today and lots of people could not take that risk. I didn’t want to discourage them either, but I did want them to know what was happening. 

When I got home I was even angrier. Some folks wrote to me about being brave, this person went down the line at the polls shouting “This is what democracy looks like!” and I was just livid. This isn’t brave, this isn’t what democracy is. This is unconscionable. This is an abomination. This is never what democracy should be. Thousands of voters are being systematically disenfranchised and the ones that voted in person today risked their health and the health of their families, neighbors, roommates, friends. Wisconsin risked extending this health crisis for weeks longer, politicians risked a spike in cases after this, they risked the lives of very real people. I had to weigh risk for myself, but I should have never been in that position. 

You know, this morning before I left the house, before all of that,  I checked the mail, I was still hoping my absentee ballot would come.

DL: What was the scene at your polling place this morning? How many people and who did you see? 

MN: I saw folks with canes walk blocks to vote. I saw plenty of older people out that I would have wanted to be safe at home. I saw an older black couple wait patiently in line with me for all three hours.  I saw young people with bandanas covering their faces, and people with scarves wrapped around their mouth. I saw folks come to the line and then realize how far back it went and get encouragement from others who had been waiting for a while.

DL: Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the entire country when it comes to racism and racial disparities. How does the state’s decision to hold an in-person election in the middle of a pandemic play into that status and into the history of racist voter suppression in the US generally?

MN: Wisconsin’s history of voter suppression didn’t start today, or this year and it probably won’t end here either. The clearly biased and partisan redistricting of WI has been going on for years. This travesty of an election highlighted major disparities across the state. I heard that other cities were able to have all drive-up locations. Madison had 62 of their normal 90 polling locations. New Berlin, WI, a city of not even 40,000 mostly white people, had 7 locations open today. 

Milwaukee has almost 600,000 people, majority people of color, and there were 5 polling locations open today. That’s thousands of people congregating and filing through a handful of locations.

Wisconsin effectively chose to put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of contracting Covid-19, threatening to overwhelm our already under prepared healthcare system. They are risking these lives because they don’t value them. 

Additionally, now that Covid-19 is hitting the US, we are seeing the disproportionate impact its having on African-Americans. In Milwaukee,  “African Americans have accounted for nearly half of the more than 1,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Milwaukee County, while making up about 27% of the county’s population.” Covid-19 is merely highlighting the various inequities that leave a population more vulnerable. The North side of Milwaukee, which has a high concentration of African-Americans, due to a history of redlining in this city and the surrounding wealthier suburbs, has seen a concerted reduction in healthcare access over the last decades while less populous areas have increased their clinics. Many folks don’t have access to a primary care doctor or regular healthcare and health insurance, which means their underlying health conditions go untreated or unaddressed. 

Also, staying at home is a privilege. Most low wage workers can’t just stay at home and without financial resources they have to continue working and traveling to jobs that endanger them. Buses have reduced services meaning folks are going to be closer together. No one has received stimulus checks, rent was due, as usual, on April 1st. People need to be able to feed their families and not put their housing at risk in order to stay safely at home. 

And then on top of all that to hold an election when every other state decided that public health was more important than holding the election on the original dates??! Wisconsin effectively chose to put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of contracting Covid-19, threatening to overwhelm our already under prepared healthcare system. They are risking these lives because they don’t value them. 

DL: What went into your decision to participate in the election? How did you make your decision and why was it important to you to cast a ballot?

MN: I’ve been trying to vote all year and at every turn it’s been awful. I vote in every election. I argued with others about going to the polls and up until the time I left, I debated with myself about going. Whether or not it was worth putting my health at risk. 

I have taken staying at home very seriously. Other than three trips to the grocery store, I haven’t been in an indoor public place since March 13th. No restaurants, no in-person hanging out, I haven’t seen my Mom closer than 6 feet away this whole time. That’s going on four weeks. This wasn’t an easy choice, it’s just all the choices were shitty choices. I tried absentee voting. I gave up on drive-up early voting, (which in retrospect was probably a mistake but I was hoping the election would be canceled.) 

I went today because I could, because I live alone and I have a healthy immune system and I have a job that I could start at 10 am after spending three hours in line. I wanted to vote for local initiatives, Marsy’s Law was misleadingly worded and I worry people didn’t understand it. Extra funding for Milwaukee Public Schools was on the ballot. The County Executive race and Mayoral race were on the ballot. And honestly fuck Biden. Despite all the chicanery of the DNC, I wanted to vote for Bernie. 

Voting isn’t the end all be all. I’m not mad at the folks that didn’t go. I’m mad at Speaker Vos and Senator Fitzgerald and Justices Roggensack, Hagedorn, Rebecca Bradley and Ziegler. I’m mad that the US in general failed to prepare for Covid-19 and my community is at risk. Politicians fail us all the time. I voted for Gov. Evers and it didn’t help. Voting is one piece of making people accountable, of identifying gaps and needs and problems, you have to continue after you leave the polls too.

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