A Republican leader bragged about voter suppression in Milwaukee. Can we finally stop blaming Black voters?
Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Bob Spindell boasted to fellow Republicans about declines in voter turnout in communities of color in Milwaukee. It’s sick. It’s also emblematic of something more.
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Guest column by Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC).
Earlier this week, Bob Spindell, a GOP-appointed commissioner on the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, said this in an email to fellow Republicans:
“In the City of Milwaukee, with the 4th Congressional District Republican Party working very closely with the RPW, RNC, Republican Assembly & Senate Campaign Committees, Statewide Campaigns and RPMC in the Black and Hispanic areas, we can be especially proud of the City of Milwaukee (80.2% Dem Vote) casting 37,000 less votes than cast in the 2018 election with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas.”
For my whole organizing career – 15 years now, all in Milwaukee – I’ve heard some form of the question, “What happened with Black voter turnout?”
I hear that question even more now that I’m executive director of a Black-led political and civic engagement organization in a swing state. For years, pollsters and curious voters alike have been asked about the Black vote. A version of that same question is what I heard after the 2016 election. It was in a condescending tone followed by “if you people would have just voted, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
I’ve felt like I was chasing that accusatory question for my whole career. Time and time again, I’ve said voter suppression is the issue. We talk about voter suppression and then wonder why turnout can be down. We saw how the pandemic was weaponized as another tool of voter suppression by forcing us to vote in person in April of 2020. We saw how just five polling places were open in Milwaukee. Milwaukee is home to the nation’s most incarcerated ZIP code, 53206, and mass incarceration impacts people’s ability to vote. More recently, we’ve seen the elimination of absentee ballot drop boxes. Before the November election in conversations with reporters, I was inoculating against that inevitable narrative.
We talk about these things as news stories when they happen, but then often forget to take these things into consideration when the election arrives and turnout is down. We’ve been naming these issues for years now; I even wrote a piece literally called, “Stop Blaming People of Color For the 2020 Election Mess.”
Flash forward to Spindell’s comments. This is someone who was a fake elector in the 2020 election, and currently serves on the Wisconsin Elections Commission. This is who is supposed to uphold democracy and the integrity of our elections. Spindell said the quiet parts out loud. We have known for years that voter suppression has been a well thought out plan. We can cite similar examples of coordinated voter suppression plans dating back over 10 years ago.
Black folks have had to jump through hurdles to combat the systemic oppression that limits our access to democracy. Voter suppression started out as literacy tests and poll taxes and now have taken a more subversive approach.
We try to remind people of these things every single election cycle when people want to blame us when the election doesn’t go a particular way. While many of us have sounded the alarm about how hard our work can be, it wasn’t always seen as a valid reason for why turnout may have gone down. Some people were just dead set on painting our community as lazy and apathetic instead of putting the responsibility on how society has failed to make democracy work for everyone.
Bob Spindell said what we’ve known for years. I’m writing this article because these words cannot be swept under the rug.
One of the things that I just assumed was a part of our society's social contract is that no matter what side of the aisle you are on, we can agree that the more people there are participating in the democratic process, the better we all are.
That’s no longer the case. I wonder if it ever was. It is deplorable that someone who serves as an election commissioner is able to brag about turnout being down in the Black and Brown communities. It’s sick. He has no business remaining on the Wisconsin Elections Commission with that type of ideology.
This is the same person that, by serving as a fake elector, is contributing to the “Big Lie.” The basis for the Big Lie is that the 2020 election is somehow invalid. That somehow these votes don’t count.
Not only is that not rooted in any shred of an intelligent thought, but we see the people who believe this are actually the ones undermining the integrity of our elections. The call is coming from inside the house. It’s not like it was just Spindell acting alone, either. This happened all throughout the Republican Party, post-2020. Devin LeMahieu, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, re-appointed Spindell to the Wisconsin Elections Commission after the fake electors plot, after all.
From here on out, I challenge people to really think about the gravity of this political climate we are in right now when analyzing why Black turnout is the way it is. There’s real work happening all across this city. Let’s not minimize it by blaming a community who is some of the most disenfranchised and focus instead the real criticism where it needs to be, on people like Bob Spindell and his allies who are proud of minimizing access to democracy at every chance they get.
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Angela Lang was born and raised in the heart of Milwaukee. She has an extensive background in community organizing. In the past, Angela served as both an organizer and State Council Director for the Service Employees International Union, working on such campaigns as the Fight for 15. Before founding BLOC, Angela was the Political Director with For Our Future Wisconsin. She is a graduate of Emerge Wisconsin. She currently is the Vice President of the ACLU of Wisconsin Board and sits on the board for Diverse and Resilient, a non profit organization that supports the LGBTQ community in Wisconsin.
Angela is motivated by making substantial and transformative change in her community while developing young, local leaders of color. Her journey in organizing hasn't always been easy, but through it all she has remained a fierce advocate for securing more seats at the table for those who represent the New American Majority.
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Something Tony Evers could work on: Under Walker, in Madison they closed the late night/Saturday /ez requests only (IDs, update addresses, renewals) location for the DMV altogether, and then they moved the main office to Middleton, harder to access by bus, farther from campus, with no "non prime" hours. No doubt that move was echoed in Milwaukee (honestly I don't know, but knowing Walker...). If we can't get rid of photo ID, we can make it easier to get to the DMV and offer more locations/hours, and it will help increase turnout.
So I hate to be that guy, but I'm gonna be that guy here for a minute.
Let's set aside that turnout was down in most places from '18 because a lot of people that year really were offended that Trump did what he said he was gonna, and there wasn't quite the same emergency in '22.
Now, in my perfect world, we'd all be automatically registered via motor voter and also get a ballot for every election in the mail. In this world, a bit more effort than that is needed to vote. But as far as I'm aware, everyone in the state is bound by the same voting rules whether they live in Milwaukee or in Chenequa. We have, for the time being, no-excuses absentee voting by mail or in person. We have early voting in most places that lasts for many hours per day. Granted that more densely populated places should have far more voting locations with no good excuse why not, other than finding enough election workers. But it's not actually required to vote in person on a schedule here. It can be done as soon as the absentee ballot can be returned from wherever the voter is.
The point being, everyone should actually be able to cast a vote if they understand the responsibility and have the motivation to do so without making it any easier than it is now. To be perfectly honest, if a Republican were to ask me what is the value of a vote from someone who doesn't have enough life skills to figure out how to get registered, get a ballot, fill it out, and get it to a mailbox under their own power, I'm not sure I could give them an answer they'd find convincing. Even in Oregon, where they already have motor voter registration and all-mail balloting, they only got 62% turnout, so maybe it's worth wondering how more than a third of the state doesn't take the opportunity when it's essentially handed to them on a plate. I'm not sure what more they could do without printing the ballot on a post-it note and having people walking around sticking it to everyone's foreheads.
Bottom line, if people are so separated from civil participation that they have to have their hands held all the way through the entire process, I don't know that I could make a good argument about how well considered their choices are. I'd need to hear the explainer for the opposite point of view.