Wisconsin is a deeply divided state. A former Madison councilman and the founder of Milwaukee’s most important Black political organization join us to examine how the political struggle there is a lesson for the nation.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Mark Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Mark Steiner. Good to have you with us. Now, none of us knows what’s going to happen in November. This may be the most crucial election in American history, in our living memory, at any rate. And what happened in the Wisconsin primary on April 7th could be a bellwether for what happens in that state November and across the nation. Wisconsin is crucial to winning the presidential election. What does the Wisconsin primary tell us about where we’re headed? It’s a state rife with voter suppression, gerrymandering to get right wing Republicans power. Voter rolls purged by the hundreds of thousands to get people of color and the poorest voters off those rolls. Trump won by only 23,000 votes, and this last primary was forced to be held despite the corona pandemic. It showed that African-American and other voters braved death, wearing masks and gloves, waiting in lines for hours to vote.
What does this mean for November? Well, we’re joined by two Wisconsin activists and political leaders. Angela Lang is the founder and executive director of BLOC, that’s Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. A Milwaukee-based organization founded in 2017, it’s become one of the most important political organizations in the state. And David Ahrens who served six years as a Madison, Wisconsin city councilman. Prior to that he worked as research director for many unions and then as a research program manager for the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. They both join us now from Milwaukee and Madison respectively. Welcome to The Real News.
So, let’s just set a very quick stage here, and Angela, I want to start with you. Set the stage on April the 7th, what it was like in Milwaukee with all those voters coming out, waiting for hours to vote in mass. Talk a bit about that day and what you all had to do with it.
Angela Lang: Yeah. First of all, thanks for having me in and really uplifting what happened on that day. I think a lot of folks saw those pictures and saw the long lines, who was in those lines, and I think a lot of people were inspired. But for me and a lot of our folks, I was devastated. I was heartbroken to see people have to make the choice between their health and in making their voice heard. And in a lot of places, but specifically Milwaukee, we see the coronavirus has been disproportionately impacting communities of color and specifically the black community. About 70 something percent of the cases are specifically folks from the black community. And so, to see people brave that was really gut-wrenching to wake up and to see.
Milwaukee typically has around 180 polling locations under normal circumstances and we only had five on this particular election day. And so, that allowed for long lines and it also had more people than would normally be in one polling location than typical you would see in any other election. And so, it was heartbreaking. I think it just goes to really speak to how resilient a lot of us are, in the fact that no matter what, we’re going to do what we can to make our voices heard.
There were some folks unfortunately who, for the first time, weren’t able to vote. There were some folks in my age group who weren’t able to vote for the first time and they pride themselves in never missing an election. And we saw some elderly folks that felt really devastated that they missed this election as well. And no matter what they said, they were like, “You know what? I missed this election, but I don’t care if I have to walk in the rain or do whatever, I’m not going to miss the November election.” And so, I think it’s an indicator of just how much of a power grab it can be in order to retain power and really suppress the votes of black and brown voters.
Mark Steiner: So one of the things, Angela, we’re talking about here, I think I’ll let you both respond to, is that this all came on top not just the pandemic, but voter suppression, cutting people off the rolls in 2019, which adversely affected mostly minorities and older people, and then poor people in the state. Then mail ballots, I was reading, weren’t even sent out. People didn’t get their mail ballots, so they were forced to go to the polls.
David Ahrens: It’s crazy.
Mark Steiner: So I mean, there was an effort to stop this vote from happening in the first place. Go ahead, David, and then we’ll go right back to Angela.
David Ahrens: Yeah, the upper target group were students. There are many barriers for students registering to vote in terms of the student IDs not being valid proof of identification. And then for those people who did get absentee ballots, they were often sent late. There were real difficulties in registering online for an absentee ballot. Then if they were sent back and it didn’t have the appropriate postmark, then they were discounted. And this was thousands of votes.
There were also instances where actually there were photographs in a post office of tubs of absentee ballots that were never sent back to the county and city clerks, so just thousands of additional votes that were discarded. We’ll really never know the level of loss and really disenfranchisement as a result of the whole absentee ballot fiasco.
Mark Steiner: So Angela, why don’t you jump in and-
Angela Lang: Yeah.
Mark Steiner: Go ahead, Angela. I’m sorry.
Angela Lang: Our state, we had calls after the election where people were asking, “Is there a way that I can track my ballot and make sure it actually was counted?” A lot of times people in our community, they prefer to vote in person and they prefer to early vote. They want to see their ballot go in the machine and hear that beep, and so you can ensure that their vote is counted. I think we have a lot of work to do to really instore that whatever systems are in place, not just for the November election, but there is a special election in some places in a couple of weeks-
David Ahrens: We know.
Angela Lang: … and then there’s an election in August as well. We need to really restore the public’s trust and confidence that if people are mailing in their ballots that not only are they going to get them on time, but they’re also going to be received. There are folks that we know that applied for and requested a ballot within the deadline and to this day they still haven’t gotten their ballot.
David Ahrens: Right.
Mark Steiner: So, just for our own edification, Angela, what are those two elections coming up you’re talking about, just very quickly?
Angela Lang: Yeah, so there is a special election in May for a congressional seat, but which is not in Milwaukee, so we haven’t been doing any work on that one in particular. But in August, our state houses are up, our state representatives, half of our Senate and specifically in Milwaukee the DA as well. So, it’s not a super quiet election depending on if there’s going to be some primaries. We just elected a new County executive with this past election and he was a former state or he is a current state representative, so his seat will now be vacant. So, there’s some moving pieces and some really important things on the ballot in August as well.
David Ahrens: Right. I’m managing a campaign that the election is in August, which is another absurdity about holding a primary election in the middle of the summer during a pandemic-
Mark Steiner: Right.
David Ahrens: … and having a completely ineffective and widely discredited absentee ballot system. So, every barrier that can be thrown up now is really sort of in place and it’s hard to get people to believe that making that effort will really make a difference.
Mark Steiner: So, let’s talk a bit about Wisconsin in November and also what Wisconsin says to the rest of the nation. I mean, your former governor, Scott Walker, said that, “As for November, there are no real takeaways as the turnout will be twice as large,” and he was talking about the email vote and the rest. So I mean, what do you think is going to happen? I mean, let me start it this way, what does Wisconsin tell us? What does it say to the nation about what could happen, what’s about to happen? I mean, Wisconsin as you said to me the other day, David, is a deeply divided state, really divided politically, like the country.
David Ahrens: Yes. It’s 50/50.
Mark Steiner: Right?
David Ahrens: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mark Steiner: So Angela, let me start with you and then we’ll come back to David. I mean, talk about what you think for what we just saw happen in Wisconsin says about the vote coming up in November.
Angela Lang: Yeah. I think in this time of uncertainty we’re not knowing how long things are going to last. We don’t know really what the state of the world under this pandemic is going to look like in November, and so making sure that there’s enough safeguards in place. I think the only advantage that we have is that Wisconsin is now experienced in holding an election during a pandemic when everybody else has postponed their elections. So at least we can kind of see this a little bit as a trial run because we’ve gone through it already on April 7th, whereas other states had enough sense to be able to alter their elections, whether it’s delaying them or doing them exclusively by mail or other ways. But we see what this looks like, and so I’m hoping that we can take lessons learned.
I think there’s a lot of people that were really, really frustrated about the back and forth. There can be an information gap in some communities. It was really hard for us to constantly push out information about new deadlines, all the postmark issues back and forth. We were literally in the middle of making calls and text messages to our folks when Governor Evers released his executive order. And so, we had to suddenly tell people to stop because things were changing by the hour. So, we’re hoping that we’re able to take some lessons learned and really provide that for November.
Mark Steiner: And David, you were saying-
David Ahrens: Right.
Mark Steiner: Oh, yeah. Go ahead, pick up.
David Ahrens: Yeah, I wanted to say that for those states that are sort of split states where you have a split legislature and governor in terms of party, where we have some executive capacity there to be more proactive than our governor, though he intended to do the right thing, there were so many different signals and so many different initiatives to stall the vote, change the vote and so on, that people who were on the ground were just blinded by these constant changes in what the play is going to be. So I just got telling people, “The election’s on. It’s off. It’s on. It’s off,” between the courts, and the executive, and the legislature.
So I think for people to have sort of establish a very clear path and say, “This is the strategy we’re going to use and we’re going to do whatever is necessary to stick to it.” If it’s going to be a mail in absentee ballot strategy, let’s create the system to do that and follow through and not flip around, which is quite a bit of what we had.
Mark Steiner: So, I’m curious what the two of you think what this election has said. I mean, both Wisconsin but also across the nation, and what it might portend. I mean, you had Democrats, the Karofsky. Did I say that right? Karofsky?
David Ahrens: Karofsky.
Mark Steiner: Karofsky. Excuse me, I’m sorry. Winning for the State Supreme court against a Republican Conservative who Trump tweeted about and supported. You have Trump only winning Wisconsin by 23,000 votes. He is elected-
David Ahrens: Gore won by 19,000 votes.
Mark Steiner: 19,000 votes, thanks for the correction.
David Ahrens: No, I said Gore won by 19,000.
Mark Steiner: Gore won by 19,000 votes. So, that’s how tight it is.
David Ahrens: That’s how tight it always is.
Mark Steiner: So, both of you are deeply involved in politics. What do you think it says to the nation about what could happen in November and how people are motivated, where the organizing is going by progressives and Democrats in terms of this coming election, what it says for your state, but what it says to the nation? What do you both think? Angela.
Angela Lang: Yeah. I think we knew very early on, long before this pandemic even hit, that this was going to be all about turnout: who can talk to the most people? Who can turn out the most people? Because, we know that the margin was so close in 2016, which is why our organization and our partner organizations to make sure that we were engaging voters in rather than the broader community and residents long before any of this hit. We wanted to make sure we were engaging people on a year round basis. I think what this did, I know that they tried to suppress votes and I think to an extent that worked. But I also think a side effect of it was people are so agitated and frustrated with the great lengths that people have gone through just to silence our votes, that it’s actually making people more determined.
People are starting to make plans now. People are asking questions now. People are requesting ballots for the rest of the year for all of their elections that they’re voting in now, so that they’re not overloading the Election Commission or overloading the postal service to make sure that they can get their ballots in time. People are making those plans now. And I agree with David, something that I’ve been saying before is that we need to have a plan in place now and figure out what that plan is. Whether I agree with how robust it is or not, I just want to make sure that there is a plan and that there is a strong educational campaign to make sure people know about the proper deadlines, those deadlines don’t move, this is the plan and we’re sticking to it. Because, I think people need to feel that they have confidence in the system that their ballots can be cast.
We’ve talked to a lot of folks that I think people got a crash course just in one day, in the 24 hours just before an election. We got a crash course in civics. We saw how our governor made decisions, we saw how our legislature makes decisions and we saw how the courts intervened and all of those were elected in Wisconsin. And so, I think people are putting together the pieces of how crucial it is to elect the leaders that are actually going to make sure that our voices are heard and have the best interests at heart. And through our legislature and through the court systems, quite frankly, failing us in this particular process, I think people are agitated in a good way and more determined to making sure that their votes are counted for the rest of the year, not just in November as well.
Mark Steiner: David, go ahead. Go ahead. [inaudible 00:15:21].
David Ahrens: Yeah. I think one thing is, and this is sort of looking back not forward, and I know you want us to look forward, but I think that what the State Supreme Court did and the Republican leadership, was so egregious, forcing us to have this election during this epidemic that many of the areas that were 50/50 or even traditionally Republican voted for Karofsky. I think that was just a sense of Wisconsin indignation and not being fair, and that these powers that be were not really looking for the best interests of voters and the people. So, I think that backfired.
But in terms of what to look forward to, I think other progressives and activists have to really go through the checklist of: what are the barricades that are going to be put before us in terms of just voter ID and voter roll suppression? And you’re having to certify your address by mail 30 days before the election. I think the worst one was really what the Milwaukee voters faced, which was basically shutting down all the polling sites to five places in the middle of winter, making people wait and not knowing where to vote. I’ve been a poll official in past elections and when you have to tell people that, “Your polling place has been changed and you have to go to blah, blah, blah, blah place instead,” it’s like saying, “Go home.”
Mark Steiner: Right.
David Ahrens: 50% of the people will not do it. I think that in itself is a strategy that’s [crosstalk 00:17:27] really effective in voter suppression and we have to be ready for that.
Mark Steiner: Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you, David.
David Ahrens: Yeah, it’s okay.
Mark Steiner: So as we close here, I’m just curious how you both feel about what your analysis is and feelings are about what could happen in November, what Wisconsin tells the rest of the country?
Angela Lang: Yeah.
David Ahrens: We’re going to win. That’s very good.
Angela Lang: I agree. And I have read so many articles about how Wisconsin is going to be the state that decides the election. I’ve read probably the equally amount of articles that said black voters are going to be the demographic that wins the election. And so with all of that being said, I’m glad that there’s a lot of attention being played on Wisconsin and specifically the power of black voters. But we also know with it is going to come an influx of Republican money. There’s going to be an influx. I think they were spooked a little bit. I think the Republican Party is a little concerned about that outcome on the April 7th election. And so, we need to be prepared and try to figure out, are there going to be other things that they’re going to try and throw our way? And like David said, being able to make sure that we have this checklist, what are the barriers? There can be a technology gap at times. We heard reports that people, when they were trying to request an absentee ballot and you had to upload a picture of-
David Ahrens: A photo.
Angela Lang: … your ID, people were sending selfies instead of taking pictures of their ID. So, making sure that people know exactly what needs to get done and making sure everything is as clear and as smooth as possible, all things considered. And we need to kind of get a jump on that sooner rather than later.
Mark Steiner: Well, this has been a great conversation. I look forward to talking to you a great deal more down the campaign trail, especially as we hit the fall and see what’s going on and find out more about what’s happening in both Madison and Milwaukee. I want to thank Angela Lang, who’s founder and executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities in Milwaukee. Good to have you with us. Really good to meet you.
Angela Lang: Thank you.
Mark Steiner: Glad to have you here. We look forward to many more times with us. And David Ahrens, former city councilman in Madison, Wisconsin and labor organizer and teacher. Good to have you with us as well.
David Ahrens: Thank you.
Mark Steiner: Talk to you all soon. And that’s it. We will continue this coverage, obviously. This is the most crucial election in modern history and we’ll see how this all pans out and what [inaudible 00:19:44] Wisconsin activists are doing to affect the outcome of the election come November. I’m Mark Steiner here for The Real News Network. Please stay safe and stay healthy and stay inside. Take care.
Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.