From recent headlines, you might think election concerns are overblown. Media reports after Wisconsin held its presidential primary on April 7 called voter turnout “extraordinarily high,” even though the election took place during a global pandemic. Unfortunately, this optimism misses an important and extremely troubling dynamic: Data show significant gaps in voter participation across racial groups in Wisconsin. As we have seen with the public health and economic fallout, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the flaws in our current election system and disproportionately affected Black and brown voters.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Milwaukee. A new analysis of 2020 election data in Milwaukee City shows that wards with higher Black and Hispanic populations had significantly lower voter turnout compared to wards with a high percentage of white residents. Average voter turnout in Black and Hispanic wards was 30 percentage points lower than the average voter turnout in white wards.1
On April 7, thousands of Wisconsin residents risked their lives to vote in person. Many voters reported facing hurdles and health risks while attempting to vote, including people who applied for absentee ballots but did not receive them by Election Day, as well as people who were forced to wait in line for hours to vote. In Milwaukee, which is home to 60.32 percent of Wisconsin’s Black voters and 29.69 percent of the state’s Hispanic voters, officials decreased the number of polling locations from 180 to just 5. In the days leading up to the primary election, COVID-19 was spreading in Wisconsin, and it was particularly rampant in Black neighborhoods in Milwaukee—statistics from the first week of April show that African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s COVID-19 cases, and 81 percent of the county’s COVID-19 deaths.
While white wards had an average of 49 percent voter turnout, Black and Hispanic wards had an average of about 18 percent turnout.
Although a record number of absentee ballots were returned during the 2020 primary election in Wisconsin, overall vote counts do not tell us how COVID-19 is impacting access to the ballot box for different racial groups. While white wards had an average of 49 percent voter turnout, Black and Hispanic wards had an average of about 18 percent turnout.