On the Frontlines of Democracy

If you asked me two months  ago if I was willing to die for democracy, I don’t know what my answer would have been. A few days ago, it became clear—undeniably, willingly, and certainly clear—that my answer was yes.

During this national pandemic and international health crisis that threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals each and every day, the prospect of death and suffering has become blatantly clear to myself, my peers, and my family.

On Tuesday, April 7th, 2020, while standing in line and holding a space for my grandfather to vote in the 2020 Wisconsin Primary, I suddenly became a part of the life-threatening circumstances marginalized and oppressed communities of voters faced during this election season, as they became increasingly more likely to be denied access to safe, adequate voting conditions. This time around it seemed there were no attempts to hide it.

My emotions overwhelmed me in the moment, as I strode towards the long chain of human beings that wrapped up, and down, and around the blocks surrounding Milwaukee’s Marshall High School. A mass of people patiently waited to cast their vote. Shifting my face mask further up over my nose, I took my place on one of the many blue pieces of tape guiding our distancing and started my wait.

“We expect more cases. We expect more deaths. We expect more tragedy,” said Wisconsin’s Governor Tony Evers (D) preceding his attempt to issue an executive order to postpone the Wisconsin Primary Election to June 9th. In his statement, Evers emphasized the severity of COVID-19’s spread and the upcoming election’s potential impact on increasing the number of cases in the state. I was terrified to know that if my dad and my grandfather’s ballots didn’t arrive by Tuesday, they could be one of those tragedies.

Evers’ desire to postpone the election was controversial, and less than two hours later, Republican members of the Wisconsin State Legislature appealed the order to the Wisconsin Supreme Court where the decision was immediately overturned. To the shock of many voters, this meant that if they had not yet received an absentee ballot in the mail, even if they asked for it on time, they would have to vote in-person the following day. On Tuesday, as my family and I patiently awaited the arrival of two absentee ballots for my grandpa and my dad that would not arrive until three days following the election, it became clear that they, too, would have to stand in line to cast their votes.

Mixed signals, confusion and misinformation had become commonplace in the days leading up to the Wisconsin election. With emails being sent to voters saying the election was postponed and announcements from clerks’ offices across the state saying that voters would have until April 13th at 4:00 p.m. to submit their absentee ballots, many people were taken aback by this seemingly fate-altering moment in which their decision to participate in democracy and risk their lives sat just hours away. For some communities this decision weighed heavier than others.

With an estimated population of 592,025, Milwaukee was the hardest hit county during Tuesday’s election. The usual 180 polling locations available to Milwaukee residents was diminished to five, with a majority of the locations suffering from the consequences of limited staff, lack of protective gear, and limited support on Election Day. “This is ridiculous,” read a voter’s large protest sign that morning. It is ridiculous.

In comparison to other cities in the state, like Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, which had 66 polling locations available for voters and, in most cases, higher numbers of absentee voters than in-person ones, Milwaukee was severely understaffed. Clerks across the state saw a drop in poll workers as the virus infected communities throughout the state and increased fear among citizens, spurring an unwillingness to risk their safety to participate in this democratic process.

Although Gov. Evers employed the National Guard to provide aid at polling locations, low staff numbers remained an issue in Milwaukee. Given the mounting issues of staffing the polls, mailing out absentee ballots to over one million Wisconsinites, and the daily increasing number of coronavirus cases, many thought it seemed reasonable or almost certain that the election would be postponed in Wisconsin, the only state in the country holding a primary in April.

“Blood will be on the hands of the people who decided to maintain and require in-person voting on election day,” said Sophia Halloran, a college student and organizer. To Halloran, who had family members who chose not to vote due to fear that they might contract the virus, this process could undeniably be considered “an illegitimate, unjust election.” Sally Rohrer, a poll worker in Madison who had merely “a mask, gloves, and hand sanitizer” for protection, shared how life-threatening and voice-diminishing this form of disenfranchisement was for voters.

How this decision would impact disproportionately disenfranchised communities like minority populations and low-income households seemed to be exacerbated by the lack of access to the polls which Milwaukee residents experienced on Tuesday. According to a study by researchers at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, voters of color as well as those from lower income communities who might not have the necessary means or access to transportation during elections are more likely to not vote when lines get long or the distance to their polling location is too far.

In addition to being an extremely underserved population during elections, Milwaukee County also had the highest number of Coronavirus cases, with over 4,845 confirmed cases and 247 deaths at the time, according to The New York Times. A significant number of these fatalities are African-American residents. So, to say seeing the hoards of voters, who were predominately black, gathering to vote on Election Day was scary would be an understatement.

The scene was more intimidating than I ever could have expected. Some people had masks; others didn’t. Most people had checked their polling location; others hadn’t. But one thing is for sure: Everyone seemed to be confused. Confused why we were standing there, confused why we were ready to face the unknown outcomes of this enormous, unmonitored social gathering, and confused why it was worth it to do this all just to cast a vote in an election where certain voices could go “undervalued” and “unheard,” the people surrounding me said. From my not-quite six-foot distance away from them, I heard their concerns.

“I don’t know if this is worth it,” one man said with a chuckle while passing by some bystanders and me as he made his trek towards the back of the line. “They don’t want us to vote. That’s why we have to,” the woman in front of me responded, as a man to her left tried to tell her that she couldn’t vote unless she was wearing a mask.

“My initial feeling was anger, and then a lot of disappointment, and ultimately frustration about the fact that this is not the first time that Wisconsin voters have experienced voter suppression, especially young voters, older voters and voters in black and brown communities that have been gerrymandered and disenfranchised,” said college student Shreya Bandopadhyay, who voted absentee.

“They are playing politics with people’s lives,” said Mandela Barnes, Lt. Gov. of Wisconsin in an interview with NBC 15. As someone who stood in line on Tuesday, I can certainly say that was the way it felt. My grandfather, who is almost 80 years old, finished treatment for his cancer just a day before the April 7th election. He was adamant about voting, and I stood in line for him because I would do anything to ensure he has access to that right.

I will remember this moment for the rest of my life. As a voter, a young person, and someone who cares deeply about the sacred privilege of voting and democratic action in this country, there is nothing more disappointing than seeing this right stolen from Wisconsin citizens. In this moment, more than ever, I feel a devotion to diligently advocate for the rights of all the voters who were silenced as a consequence of fear, pre-existing conditions, lack of access to a vehicle, disability, misinformation, and discrimination.

In my one year as an Andrew Goodman Ambassador, I have grown more aware than ever that my generation will have an undeniable influence on the elections which take place in this country. When granted an opportunity to enact change in the world we hope to shape and build, my peers, well-equipped with a knowledge and recognition of the issues that most deeply impact them, will step up to the challenge and vote. At the University of Wisconsin – Madison, The Andrew Goodman Foundation has played a crucial role in a growing motivation and passion for voting and civic engagement in faculty, staff, and students. I have no doubt that this passion will continue to grow.

For many, this moment is a disheartening one, and it will be likely remembered by all of the current and future voters who strive to advocate for equality, fairness, and representation in a democracy that grants access to all, no matter their background or circumstance. The leaders we elect have direct impact on these decisions, and the next time people get the opportunity to vote, I am certain that they will keep that in mind.

About the Author

Tamia Fowlkes is a student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison majoring in Journalism and Political Science. On campus, Tamia serves as an Andrew Goodman Ambassador, a representative for Associated Students of Madison, and as the Big 10 Voting Challenge Intern. In her free time, Tamia loves to write, see musicals, listen to music, and go to concerts, and serve her community by getting involved in social movements that evoke necessary change.