The five Wisconsin cities with the largest populations — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, and Racine — received a combined $6.3 million this month to support the “Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan,” Wisconsin Public Radio reports.
Awarded by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, the grants are to help cities continue election operations amidst COVID-19 by funding the opening and cleaning of polling sites, buying personal protective equipment for poll workers, and helping voters with their absentee ballots.
“These grants will help each municipality make investments that will ensure smooth, safe, and healthy elections in a time of a national health pandemic — which each municipality otherwise would struggle to do while facing an intense budget shortfall,” said Racine Mayor Cory Mason in a statement.
The grants are a response to the problems during Wisconsin spring elections in which long lines led to voters being potentially exposed to the deadly virus.
The New York Times reported despite the potential exposure, it did not stop voters from participating in the key Democratic presidential primary as well as the decision for a seat in the state Supreme Court.
Voter Dan Bullock told the Times, “It feels bad to have to choose between your personal safety and your right to vote.”
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, The Times reported polling places were reduced from a previous 180 to 5 locations causing voters to wait up to two hours to cast their ballot. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a shortage of poll workers caused the closures.
The troubles that voters experienced in Milwaukee and elsewhere sparked conversations of whether or not a more robust vote-at-home strategy would be more effective in keeping voters safe while they cast their ballot.
Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Kiesling, who played a part in implementing vote-at-home in the state in 1998, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that if Wisconsin had enough time, that the strategy could work for them too.
Kiesling highlights that the system is lower in cost and results in higher voter turnout. This is because the system differs from any other traditional voting system allowing voters to drop off their ballot at centers that are close or convenient to them.
“If Wisconsin had the chance and enough time to do it right, and the political ability to do it, Milwaukee, as an example, would’ve probably had 30 of these things,” Kiesling said.
Voter access in Wisconsin had been eroded under former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who during his two terms in office implemented one of the harshest voter ID laws in the nation and restricted early voting, among other measures.
One particular instance stands out: that of a 2014 voter purge that resulted in 25,000 fewer registered voters in 2018 compared to 2014, a change opponents said “disproportionately disenfranchised black and Latino voters,” according to The Atlantic.
Current Democratic governor Tony Evers has taken steps to improve voter access, including issuing an executive order requiring the state Department of Transportation to make it easier to get a voter ID. He’s also called for automatic voter registration and, before the spring primary, called for the state to provide an absentee ballot to every registered voter in Wisconsin, a request that was not granted.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life said the funding will support the expansion of in-person early voting sites, including curbside voting. Additionally, there will be funding to help voters comply of absentee voter requests and certification requirements.
The grant also includes funding dedicated to the sanitization of voting facilities. Inspectors will ensure that voting sites are properly staffed during the election, receiving hazard pay where needed.
Center for Tech and Civic Life executive director Tiana-Epps-Johnson said in a statement that the safe voting plan will assure voters that despite the pandemic, they will not have to choose between their health and voting this election season.
We’re proud to partner with the five largest cities in Wisconsin to deliver a smooth voting process that inspires confidence,” she added.
Nicolette White is a class of 2020 Emma Bowen Foundation Fellow at Next City. Currently, White is completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism at Temple University. She is also a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has previously interned for The Philadelphia Tribune and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.