In the 2016 election, Wisconsin’s Republican voter ID law suppressed 200,000 votes in a state Donald Trump won by 22,000 votes. Milwaukee was ground zero for voter suppression, and is one of the most deeply segregated and incarcerated cities in the country. A new special report from The Real News Network highlights the work of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities to restore the promise of democracy, one door at a time–and discusses the limitations of this approach when Democrats refuse to abolish the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation in the Senate.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
This story is part of a series that was made possible with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Jaisal Noor: These community activists are fighting voter suppression with the best tool they have: community organizing. They canvas year round and ask residents what their community needs to thrive.
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Speaker: So we’re just canvassing the neighborhood, asking folks what would it look like for their community to thrive. Meaning like to see it get better.
Jaisal Noor: These community organizers with Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, are building community power. A way of building a voting block that is more self-conscious of its needs and is organized enough to lobby for them. Something residents say fits the needs of the community.
Speaker: When you come door to door and talk to people like they’re humans, I think that’s a better fit for this neighborhood because people are already afraid. And you don’t want to believe everything you see on TV. And when a person confronts you face to face. It’s more personal, that’s what I think. I think that’s more caring.
Jaisal Noor: And they’re helping residents overcome the numerous obstacles to voting, a crucial task, says Angela Lang, the group’s founder and executive director.
Angela Lang: And the challenges around voting are being able to constantly limit early voting hours, taking away polling places, taking away weekend voting where so many people utilize. But then also we have photo ID in our state and not everybody has an ID, not everyone has the most up-to-date ID.
Jaisal Noor: The biggest obstacle to voting in Wisconsin is the state’s voter ID law that had a direct impact on the 2016 election. The law was passed by Republicans who claimed requiring voters to show state ID or photo ID and proof of residence would clamp down on voter fraud. But you didn’t always need an ID to vote in Wisconsin.
Robert Kraig: Wisconsin had a long progressive tradition of great voting rights, great access, same day registration. We regularly compete with Minnesota for the top turnout in the country. And then in the tea party wave of 2010 we got Scott Walker and a very right-wing Republican legislature.
Jaisal Noor: But that changed in 2011 when Wisconsin passed a voter ID law among other voter suppression efforts, says Robert Kraig of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. A Milwaukee based grassroots pro-democracy nonprofit.
Robert Kraig: Voter suppression laws which they passed through consecutively ended up in court. We actually are the lead plaintiffs in one of the major lawsuits. They’re a little like Jim Crow in that a lot of them just… The additive effect of all of that reduces voter turnout but many of them are designed to seem reasonable on face.
Angela Lang: So having an ID can sometimes be a challenge if people lose an ID. I know I have to get mine updated and I’m dreading it because I don’t have time to stand in line for hours at the DMV.
Jaisal Noor: The evidence is clear that while widespread voter fraud does not exist, voter ID laws disproportionately impact African American and Latino voters, who are far less likely to have ID than their white counterparts.
Robert Kraig: And so they knew very well it would have a disproportionate impact on low income folks which in our system is disproportionately folks of color, and that those were dominantly Democratic voters. And if you create that hurdle you would reduce voter turnout. And in fact, there was a massive reduction in turnout in Milwaukee among African American – And especially of African American and to some extent Latinx voters – From 2012 to 2016 when it was fully implemented.
Jaisal Noor: While white voter participation dropped 2% between 2012 and the 2016 election, Black voter turnout dropped nearly 20 points.
Speaker: Those people we know have been deterred or downright denied the ability to vote. And these are people who have been voting for years, they’re clearly citizens, nobody really disputes that they’re eligible to vote. But nonetheless, because of this arbitrary law, they still are unable to vote because they can’t get a piece of documentation that the state demands of them.
Jaisal Noor: And even if the requirements of the voter ID law don’t outright disqualify people from voting, a lack of information about voting requirements contributed to 200,000 Wisconsin voters being deterred from voting in the 2016 election in which Trump beat Clinton by 20,000 votes according to a study by Priorities USA. So when it comes to going to the polls, education is power.
Angela Lang: I presented an ID. It didn’t match my previous or my current address, it had my old address on it, but I knew that all I had to do was just show my picture and they should only be looking at my picture. And they tried to turn me away and said that my address didn’t match. But I knew the rules and I knew my rights so I stayed there and we had to get the chief election inspector to say, no. Yep, she’s right. Let her vote.
Jaisal Noor: The Trump years were not kind to Black cities like Milwaukee, which has long ranked last or near the bottom on indicators of social and economic wellbeing for African American residents. But out of these struggles a new kind of voter organizing has been born.
Speaker: Thank you. I’ll sure be in contact. Yeah. We got a little puppy.
Speaker: So did we get your email address or anything?
Angela Lang: We wanted to disrupt some of the transactional nature of typical electoral politics in communities of color. And so we’re a year round civic engagement organization, even with COVID. We had to scale back a lot, but we’re one of the only organizations that has a year round field program. We’re canvassing 24-7 around issues and around the things that people care about.
Jaisal Noor: Joanne Robinson is lead ambassador for BLOC, a group she’s been with since it’s launch in 2017. As member organizers are quick to point out, BLOC doesn’t just ask people to go to the polls every couple years. Through direct community engagement, their organizing based approach focuses on mobilizing and uplifting neighborhoods so that residents develop a strong self advocacy and shared purpose that gives them something to vote for and more power to ensure their interests are served by elected officials.
Joann Robinson: We are working to fight towards issues that I have, and that my friends, family, neighbors, and everyone has. That I don’t qualify for home ownership programs, I was unable to rent because I have an eviction on my name. I was homeless a few times here.
Jaisal Noor: BLOC hires people from the community, many of whom have experienced the same challenges common in deeply segregated Milwaukee. Incarceration, lack of access to quality housing, jobs, and childcare.
Angela Lang: And what is, I think, so beautiful about it is that there’s people from our community. There are some people on our staff that haven’t had their voting rights restored yet, but yet they’re still knocking doors. They’re still educating people. And so I think there’s something beautiful about being able to have people from the community being able to have conversations.
Jaisal Noor: For the 2018 elections just a year after they launched, BLOC knocked on over 227,000 doors and spoke to more than 20,000 voters. A year Democrats made big gains, sweeping all statewide offices including governor and lieutenant governor. But these victories also exposed the depth of voter disenfranchisement in Wisconsin, considered one of the most severely gerrymandered states. Even though Democrats won a majority of the vote in 2018, they only won 38 of 99 seats in the state assembly.
Robert Kraig: In Wisconsin it was especially egregious. They paid outside right-wing lawyers a lot of public money to have a secret process, to do maps that would withstand any Democratic surge. They statistically did a whole lot of modeling to show that the maps they came up with were impossible for the Democrats to win in.
Jaisal Noor: So even though Democrats defeated governor Scott Walker who passed voter ID laws and gerrymandering, they’re powerless to repeal those policies, which is the point of gerrymandering. 2020 brought new challenges, namely the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit cities like Milwaukee especially hard and upended how BLOC could operate. It was no longer safe for ambassadors to go door to door. Despite these challenges, BLOC ambassadors made over 250,000 phone calls and sent over 550,000 text messages.
Angela Lang: We were able last year to at least do some literature drops. So we weren’t comfortable having face to face conversations. We were able to leave literature on people’s doors, so at least people were getting that information. Last year I think we had over 200, like 20,000 phone calls were made with our ambassadors, and they sent over 550,000 text messages over the course of just a few months last year. And what I always want to note when I say those numbers, is that these numbers were hit by our ambassadors who are not immune to the same things that we’re fighting for. And so a part about being a part of the community that you’re organizing is that the same challenges that the broader community is dealing with, so was our team
Jaisal Noor: Record voter turnout helped Biden win Wisconsin in 2020. But the pandemic, voter ID laws, and other voter suppression efforts resulted in stagnant turnout among Black voters in Milwaukee.
Angela Lang: Like, we were able to hold the line as much as possible. And there was a little bit of an enthusiasm gap. Not everyone was excited for Biden. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. There’s all sorts of challenges. And again, that’s why we think about democracy in a holistic sense because a lot of the challenges from the pandemic, people may want to vote but they’re not necessarily thinking about it. If they are trying to figure out how to survive or they’re an essential worker and they’re just trying to make ends meet.
Jaisal Noor: Lang argues numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Angela Lang: For us, being able to see more people that we’ve been engaging finally come around. To see people come to us and say, hey, I want to get involved with you all. I want to be a leader. I want to do what you are doing. There are times now we’re knocking on people’s doors, who at one point were skeptical of the work that we do, and are like, hey, how can I do what you are doing? And they end up getting involved with us in our work.
Jaisal Noor: Lang says Democrats must pass legislation that prevents states from Wisconsin from suppressing the votes of people of color. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would ban gerrymandering and discriminatory voting laws like Wisconsin’s voter ID. But Republicans are blocking it with a Jim Crow-era rule called the filibuster.
Mitch McConnell: There’s nothing, nothing to suggest a sprawling federal takeover is necessary.
Jaisal Noor: Which a handful of Democrats have refused to reform.
Angela Lang: We understand that in order to have a Democratic majority you need people to turn out, which means you need to eliminate things like voter suppression. And so it’s incredibly unfortunate, and a little mind-boggling, that Democrats have this power but for whatever reason are unable to actually wield it and to use it for something effective. And it’s going to come back, probably sooner rather than later. It’s going to come back to bite them.
Jaisal Noor: Future installments of this six part series will learn how voting rights activists in Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Nevada are fighting gerrymandering and voter suppression. With Cameron Granadino, this is Jaisal Noor.