As the first wave of COVID-19 hit Wisconsin in April, Alexandra Nichole Salazar Vasquez, 27, a PhD student in Milwaukee, planned to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary. Knowing there would be longer lines in her low-income community, she felt nervous about voting in person. She lacked health insurance and lived in a multi-generational household, so she requested an absentee ballot.
“It would affect more than just me, so going out to vote was not an option for me – it was too much of a risk.”The lines were longer than she imagined. Poll workers stayed home to avoid the virus, leaving Milwaukee with only five polling stations instead of the usual 180.
Her ballot did not arrive on time, so she could not vote. “Are you kidding me?” she thought when she received it more than a month late.
This election, she plans to vote for Joe Biden but fears her ballot will not be counted again.
This is the tension playing out in Wisconsin ahead of election day: people in Milwaukee, which is 40 percent African American, report feeling motivated to vote, but they are up against one of the strictest voter identification laws in the country, enacted in 2016. A study found the voter ID law deterred 11.2 percent of eligible voters, mostly from low-income and minority communities in Dane and Milwaukee counties in 2016 – between 16,801 and 23,252 people.
Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by only 22,748 votes. It was one of the tipping-point states that secured Trump’s victory. Supported by white voters in rural and suburban areas, he flipped 22 counties that voted for Obama in 2012.
With higher turnout expected in the presidential election and Wisconsin now a hotspot for COVID-19, voters fear a repeat of the primary.
State of the race
What makes Wisconsin a battleground state is a combination of factors that handed Trump victory in 2016: depressed turnout for Hillary Clinton, third-party candidates attracting ballots, plus white voters without college degrees and white suburban voters who streamed to the polls for Trump, turning the state red for the first time since Ronald Reagan won it in 1984.
Polls showed Clinton with a healthy lead, but voters who made up their minds in the last week of the election took a leap of faith for Trump. Fourteen percent of Wisconsin voters decided their presidential vote in the final week, according to exit polls. Of those 14 percent, 59 percent of them voted for Trump and only 30 percent voted for Clinton.The same combination of voters who handed Trump victory might be out of reach this time, according to Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. Miringoff cited an analysis by NBC News and the Cook Political Report that found if 2016’s turnout was applied to 2020’s new demographics, Trump would lose Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. As Trump attempts to energise his base, he is losing wider appeal. “He’s trying to run up the score of what is a shrinking group of people,” Miringoff said.
As Trump’s popularity wanes with white voters, they are turning to Biden. A Marquette Law School poll showed Biden five points up in Wisconsin while Marist had him leading by 10 points. Miringoff said Biden has a better favourability rating than Trump, attracting independents, white voters and voters over 65 – people who sided with Trump in 2016. Biden is winning among white men and especially white women.
Trump’s approval rating is 42 percent – low for any president trying to win re-election, he said. The problem for Trump is, this election is a referendum on his leadership, and his handling of COVID-19 is a top issue.
Protests followed the shooting of Jacob Blake by a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August. Although the vast majority of Black Lives Matter protests in America were peaceful, looting and property damage coincided with the protests in Kenosha, and self-identified militia member Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the shooting deaths of two protesters and the injury of a third.
Trump was able to flip Kenosha County from Obama in 2016, winning it by only 238 votes. Both candidates visited Kenosha after the unrest; Biden met with Blake’s family while Trump met with business owners who suffered damage and looting. Miringoff does not think Kenosha will have a large effect on the presidential race because it is not front and centre. “The last thing on people’s minds can be very telling in terms of how they’re voting.”