MILWAUKEE (AP) — Recent revelations about Republican campaign strategies targeting minority communities in Wisconsin’s largest city came as no surprise to many black voters.
Wisconsin’s election commissioner boasted of low turnout in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods during last year’s election. A few weeks later, audio surfaced showing then-President Donald Trump’s Wisconsin campaign team laughing behind closed doors about efforts to reach black voters in 2020.
Many people who voted last week in the state’s primary election said they have long felt targeted by Republicans. The difference now is the public display of strategies that at best ignore the priorities of black voters and at worst actively seek to prevent them from voting.
“It’s a plan that they designed and executed with a lot of precision,” said lifelong Milwaukee resident Dewayne Walls, 63. as long as they have power in Madison” — the state capital.
Walls and other black voters said they are tired of the myriad barriers that disproportionately try to keep them from being heard at the ballot box. Voters said their experiences with the GOP felt like votes to keep quiet, not win over.
“The Republican Party needs a lot of work. They all need to step into our shoes, step into our neighborhoods, do our jobs, do the things we do on a daily basis and see how they feel about what happens when they experience it,” said Valeria Gray, 59.
She described the relationship between Milwaukee and much of the rest of the state as racially divided.
“It doesn’t look like it’s ever going anywhere,” she said.
Voting rights advocates have accused Wisconsin Republicans for years of pushing policies to suppress voters of color and lower-income voters. Many such policies centered on the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee, home to nearly 70% of Wisconsin’s black population.
Those claims were reinforced by an email sent in December to about 1,700 people by Bob Spindel, a Republican member of the Wisconsin Board of Elections. He said Republicans “can be particularly proud” of depressed midterm voter turnout in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods in Milwaukee, a heavily Democratic city.
Spindel later said his email was meant to convey steps Republicans were taking to counter Democratic messages in the city.
The Associated Press then obtained audio of a meeting in which the head of Trump’s 2020 Wisconsin campaign team spoke to staff about their efforts to reach black voters: “Have we ever talked to black people before? I don’t think so,” a campaign official said with a laugh.
Dwayne Morgan, 59, called it “the same old, same old” for the GOP in Milwaukee. “They are trying to force us not to vote. They are trying to erase history,” he said.
The Republican-drawn legislative maps passed last year dilute Milwaukee’s influence and all but guarantee a Republican majority in the Legislature. That’s despite statewide races routinely being decided by narrow margins, with Democrats winning major statewide offices, including governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed strict voter ID laws in 2011 under then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Since beginning his first term in 2019, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has vetoed more than a dozen GOP-backed bills that would have made it harder to vote. These include indefinitely limited ID requirements for elderly and disabled voters, restrictions on when and where absentee ballots can be collected, and a ban on election officials filling in missing voter information.
Regardless, Republicans prevailed in the courts, using lawsuits to ban ballot boxes and deny election officials the ability to fill in missing information on envelopes containing ballots. The conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is at stake in this year’s election, has routinely ruled in favor of Republicans on consequential ballot decisions.
That adds to the multitude of reasons why black voters in Milwaukee increasingly feel like their votes don’t matter. The city has some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in health care, education, wealth and incarceration.
Low-income residents, who are disproportionately black, already struggle to meet basic needs. Confusion about the new election rules or limited options for when and where they can vote further discourages voting, said the Rev. Greg Lewis, founder of Soul to the Polls Milwaukee.
“Suppression is not just a few things,” he said. “It’s not just the impossibility of voting without an ID card. Not only are you unable to take your ballots to the box. It’s not just language barriers. It’s all those things together.”
For Barbara Bryant, 76, “all the extra steps” were the biggest obstacle to voting. But it won’t stop her from running in this month’s primary. Last week, in the middle of a snowstorm, a pollster helped her out of her car and into an early voting location.
Bryant said she has favored early voting in recent years so pollsters have time to explain any new rules, but she has seen inaccessible polling places and the removal of drop boxes discourage other older adults from voting.
Wisconsin Republicans told the AP they have been trying to make inroads among black and Latino voters in Milwaukee for a decade.
The state party opened its first office in downtown Milwaukee in 2019, specifically with the goal of reaching black voters. The focus is on engaging them in the conversation, rather than meeting typical campaign metrics like knocking on a certain number of doors, said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the state GOP.
He said the party is not trying to suppress votes, but to reduce support for Democrats in those communities.
“People are listening when they weren’t before,” Jefferson said. “I think we learned a lot. I think we’re chipping away at the Democratic margins, although faster right now in the Hispanic community and Hispanic communities. But we’re also cutting into the margins and on the north side of Milwaukee. And that’s because we’re more in touch than we used to be.”
Angela Lang, executive director of Milwaukee-based Black Leaders Organizing Communities, wasn’t worried about Republicans gaining ground among black voters. She said the GOP’s priorities are fundamentally at odds with what the majority of black voters in Milwaukee want.
But Lang said she’s worried about the precedent Republicans could set by talking so openly about strategies to reduce turnout.
“It’s incredibly dangerous, because once it starts, then people feel more emboldened,” she said.
Several black voices interviewed at the polls said they saw little Republican activity in the city and described the GOP contact center as more of a showpiece for the party.
“I don’t think they ever come here to try to get to us,” said voter Damario Wright, 36. “I mean, you hardly ever see a Republican in Milwaukee — come on, now.”
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.
Associated Press coverage of the race and vote is supported by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. AP is solely responsible for all content.
Harm Venhuizen is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on hidden issues. Follow him on Twitter.