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Wisconsin is one of the U.S.'s crucial swing states, but Republican voter-ID rules could keep it from swinging Biden’s way in the presidential election – unless organizers can boost turnout in the middle of a pandemic

Anita Johnson, middle, is the Wisconsin co-ordinator for Vote Riders, and says this year has been a challenging one to get potential voters registered and able to travel to polling stations. Office manager Terri Coughlin, left, and university student Anne Isman, right, say they had frustrating experiences trying to take part in an April election in Wisconsin.Jim Vondruska/The Globe and Mail

Sheila McGee had never missed an election. This past April, with both a hotly contested seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Democratic presidential primary on the ballot, the 62-year-old Milwaukee resident was eager to vote. But Ms. McGee suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, breathing from a canister of oxygen, and didn’t want to risk her health amid the escalating pandemic. So she ordered a mail-in ballot.

By election day on April 7, Ms. McGee’s ballot still hadn’t arrived. Local officials, meanwhile, had so much trouble finding people willing to work at the polls that Milwaukee’s usual 180 polling places were reduced to just five.

Ms. McGee had to travel to a high school more than eight kilometres from her home. When she got there, the lineup of voters stretched out the door, down the block and around the corner.

Ms. McGee was heartened that the novel coronavirus hadn’t dulled people’s desire to exercise their franchise, but she knew it would be impossible for her to wait hours in queue.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see it,” she said. “But I said, ‘I can’t do that, not with my condition.’ ”

Two days after the election, Ms. McGee’s ballot finally came in the mail.

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Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, had tried to extend the deadline for voters to return ballots. The Republican-controlled legislature, however, blocked the move.

The debacle was only the latest chapter in a decade-long effort by Wisconsin Republicans to make it harder for people to vote in this key swing state.

One previous law, requiring voters to present state photo identification at the polls, left an estimated 300,000 Wisconsinites unable to vote. Another cut the number of days allowed for early voting and prohibited elections officials from sending absentee ballots by e-mail.

These measures have disproportionately hit Black voters such as Ms. McGee, Latinos and university students, all of whom are more likely to support the Democrats. Republicans say such laws are necessary to crack down on voter fraud. But such fraud, in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the United States, is exceedingly rare.

People cheer at the New York Hilton Midtown on Nov. 8, 2016, as Wisconsin's presidential election results come in on television.Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The state’s voting restrictions may even have helped U.S. President Donald Trump win the White House. In 2016, the first election for which Wisconsin’s voter ID law was in place, the billionaire businessman narrowly carried the state because turnout, particularly among Black voters, plummeted.

Now, the President is pursuing a national strategy of suppressing the vote. Mr. Trump’s campaign is suing state and local governments to block measures meant to expand voters' options for casting a ballot during the pandemic. He has called on supporters to descend on polling places in heavily Democratic areas to “watch” people voting. He has threatened to stop emergency funding to the United States Postal Service that would help process mail-in ballots amid cutbacks by the Republican postmaster-general. And he has repeatedly, without evidence, claimed that voting by mail will cause widespread cheating.

“This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” the President said during last week’s debate with his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. “Mailmen selling the ballots. They are being sold. They are being dumped in rivers.”

Mere weeks before a pivotal presidential election, the U.S. is at war with itself over access to the ballot. The fight has echoes of the 1960s civil rights movement, which overturned centuries of voter-suppression laws targeted at Black Americans, and it is unfolding against the backdrop of a similar national reckoning with institutional racism.

And the experience in Wisconsin illustrates how crucial the rules around voting could be to determining who sits in the White House for the next four years.

Protesters in Kenosha, Wisc., confront a Trump supporter outside a courthouse on Sept. 1 during President Donald Trump's visit to the city. Protests against racism arose in the city after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man.KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

Two days later, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visited Kenosha, where he spoke to residents at Grace Lutheran Church. Black, Latino and young voters in the state are more likely to vote Democrat, but for Mr. Biden the challenge is making sure they get to the polls.Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

A state of 5.8 million people at the crossroads of the Rust Belt, northern forests and western farm country, Wisconsin’s elections have become increasingly competitive in recent years. Many statewide votes here are decided by margins of a percentage point or two.

In 2011, newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker signed the voter ID law. It required that people have one of eight specific forms of photo identification, including a driver’s licence or state identification card, in order to vote.

Other laws barred early voting more than two weeks before election day and banned the distribution of mail-in ballots to voters by e-mail. After being held up by court challenges, the voter ID rules came into effect for the 2016 election.

Wisconsin’s measures are part of a tidal wave of similar restrictions passed by Republican-controlled states over the past decade. That push largely arose after the 2008 election, in which a diverse, youthful voting coalition made Barack Obama the U.S.'s first Black president.

Eighteen states now have photo ID laws. Other policies have included purging voter rolls to get rid of people who may have moved since the previous election, restricting efforts by voter-registration groups to sign people up, shutting down polling places in Democratic-heavy areas and ending early voting on Sundays, when Souls to the Polls groups at Black churches organize congregants to vote after services.

The Supreme Court helped this push with a 2013 ruling in a case called Shelby v. Holder. The decision struck down a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had prevented nine mostly Southern states with a history of racist voting practices from changing their electoral rules.

Instructions about acceptable photo IDs are displayed at an elections office in Eau Claire, Wisc., in 2016.Marisa Wojcik/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP

Critics charge that the new laws are aimed squarely at disenfranchising minority, low-income and young voters who lean Democratic. Marginalized minority voters, for instance, are less likely to have photo identification or the time and money necessary to get it. Older Black voters born in the South during segregation often do not have the birth certificates required to obtain an ID. Students and low-income people, meanwhile, are more likely to move and therefore to be purged from the voter rolls and required to reregister before voting.

“Those measures have fallen disproportionately on voters who turned out in record numbers in 2008,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting-rights project. “It’s an effort to freeze the electorate in time, an effort to stall the changing balance of power in the United States.”

Suppressing even a fraction of a percentage point of the vote can decide a close election. Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory was secured by just 80,000 people in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. After that vote, the outcome was largely credited to the President’s ability to woo the white working class away from the Democrats in the Midwest. But there is evidence that, at least in Wisconsin, voter suppression was a more important factor.

Mr. Trump took Wisconsin by 22,748 votes, a margin of 0.77 per cent, the first Republican to carry the state since 1984. But he actually garnered 2,600 fewer votes than Mitt Romney, the party’s previous nominee. Mr. Trump won because the Democratic vote fell by 238,000 from 2012.

A masked supporter dances before Mr. Trump arrives at a 2016 campaign town hall in Wausau, Wisc.Ben Brewer/Reuters

One study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that, in the state’s two most populous counties alone, up to 23,000 people were deterred from voting in 2016 by the ID law, with Black and low-income voters disproportionately affected.

Another study, by the Center for American Progress, based on polling and census data, estimated that the Black vote in Wisconsin fell by 19 percentage points between 2012 and 2016, more than four times the national drop of 4.4 points. Turnout in Milwaukee, whose population is two-thirds Democratic and 40 per cent Black, dropped by seven points.

The state’s Republicans even openly credited the new laws with helping them win.

“How many of your listeners really, honestly are sure that … President Trump was going to win Wisconsin if we didn’t have voter ID to keep Wisconsin’s election clean and honest and have integrity?” then-attorney-general Brad Schimel told a conservative radio program in 2018.

Before the election, Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman, a former state senator who had backed the law, told a local NBC affiliate that “photo ID is going to make a little bit of a difference” in helping Republicans take the state.

Mr. Schimel and Mr. Grothman did not respond to The Globe and Mail’s requests for comment.

In previous interviews they, and most Wisconsin Republicans, have argued that the new voting restrictions were necessary to crack down on voter fraud by Democrats. But they had trouble finding evidence that any such fraud was happening. In one court battle over the ID law, for instance, the state’s lawyers could not point to a single verified instance of voter impersonation in the state. A lone incident did emerge shortly after, but involved a Milwaukee man voting multiple times for Republican candidates, including Mr. Walker.

A nationwide study by Loyola Law School, meanwhile, found just 35 instances of voter impersonation between 2000 and 2014, out of 800 million votes cast.

The voters effectively disenfranchised by Wisconsin’s laws, by contrast, are very real.

One Wisconsin court found that 300,000 people in the state did not have an acceptable form of identification for voting under the new rules, and that Black and Latino voters were more than twice as likely as white voters to lack ID. Another court determined that 85 per cent of rejected applications for voter identification came from Black and Latino Wisconsinites.

A voter queues up in Milwaukee in Aug. 11 for the state primary election.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Eddie Lee Holloway Jr., a 55-year-old Black Milwaukee man who unsuccessfully tried to have a court overturn the voter ID law, demonstrated how high the barriers could be.

Despite having a birth certificate and social-security card, the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles turned down Mr. Holloway’s application for a state ID because his birth certificate mistakenly listed “Junior” as his middle name. So he took a bus to Illinois, where he was born, and tried to get his birth certificate corrected. Despite two trips to the state capital and one to his hometown to gather documents, Illinois officials said he did not have enough information to fix the certificate.

After visiting four government offices in three cities across two states and shelling out hundreds of dollars in travel expenses, Mr. Holloway finally gave up.

Even people who successfully registered to vote reported serious obstacles.

Lucy Dechene, a retired mathematics professor living in Madison, said it took four attempts over two months to get on the rolls. Despite having her birth certificate, a passport, credit-union statement, the deed to her condominium and a phone bill, staff at a voter-registration booth refused to sign her up because they felt she hadn’t sufficiently proven her address.

A second attempt, made by mail, was rejected for the same reason. The third time, she used the rejection letter itself as proof of address to register at the city clerk’s office. But the clerk told her that her registration likely wouldn’t go through in time for the next election. So Ms. Dechene registered a fourth time at her polling station.

“I remember the days in other states, when if you needed to establish residency, you brought in a piece of mail – any mail – addressed to you,” said Ms. Dechene, 69, who has previously lived in California and Massachusetts.

Wisconsin’s law also imposed restrictions on students trying to use their university-issued identification to vote: Only cards with a two-year expiration date were acceptable. The majority of the state’s postsecondary institutions did not issue cards that met these criteria because they are largely used by students pursuing four-year degrees.

Anne Isman is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.Jim Vondruska/The Globe and Mail

Anne Isman, a 19-year-old economics student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, faced exactly this problem in April.

Before election day, the pandemic had sent her home to New York, so she could not apply for a separate Wisconsin state ID. And she couldn’t vote in New York either because, assuming she would be voting in Wisconsin, she had not registered her party affiliation back home.

“It was definitely frustrating. I was unable to vote in either state because of this one pretty unnecessary rule,” she said.

The pandemic also thwarted Terri Coughlin. A 62-year-old office manager, she volunteered as a poll clerk and was assigned to work at a different location from the one at which she was registered to vote.

During her lunch break, she went to her polling place and saw the lineups were three kilometres long. There was no way she would reach the front before she had to be back at work.

Ms. Coughlin took some solace in the fact that she had at least facilitated democracy for her fellow citizens.

“I was scared of working because COVID was so new. But when the decision to delay the election was overturned, I wasn’t going to let that stop me from helping other people vote,” she said. “There’s just so much suppression going on, and what our Wisconsin legislature did was another nail in the coffin. I wasn’t going to let them have any part in that if I could.”

This time, ironically, the Republicans' restrictions on voting appeared to have inadvertently driven down their own turnout. Elderly voters in conservative rural areas, quarantining because of the pandemic, stayed away from the polls and failed to receive mail-in ballots. Democratic-backed Jill Karofsky defeated conservative incumbent Daniel Kelly for the state high court seat by a margin of more than 10 percentage points.

Trump and Biden supporters rally outside an aluminum foundry in Manitowoc, Wisc., on Sept. 21 while Mr. Biden was speaking there. 'Law and order' has become a major talking point among Trump supporters who see the protests against police brutality as mob violence.Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

An image of Mr. Biden's running mate, Kamala Harris, appears on a TV behind Mr. Trump aboard Air Force One after a Sept. 17 campaign rally in Mosinee, Wisc. Mr. Trump has warned repeatedly of voter fraud in the coming election, without providing evidence.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

On a sunny September Wednesday, half a dozen volunteers from VoteRiders and Souls to the Polls – two groups that help people vote – set up a red tent on the lawn of an apartment complex in Milwaukee’s majority Black north side. They had come at the request of Ms. McGee, who lives here. Determined to ensure others didn’t face the obstacles that kept her from voting in the spring, she invited the groups to help her neighbours sign up to vote.

Over the course of a couple of hours, a steady stream of voters approached the tent, where masked volunteers helped them fill out voter-registration forms and request mail-in ballots. A box of stickers reading Black Votes Matter sat nearby.

Anita Johnson, VoteRiders' co-ordinator for the state, said the pandemic had made her work more difficult. But the groups are nonetheless mounting a full-court press. In the spring, for instance, Souls to the Polls hired four people to call everyone in their congregations to ensure that they were registered and could receive a ballot. And Vote Riders has recruited volunteers to give people rides to the polls, act as witnesses for mail-in ballots and take people to the DMV to guide them through the process of getting identification.

“This has been the worst year to reach out to the public, to make sure people have photo IDs and are registered,” she said. “But we’re going to do whatever we can.”

Anita Johnson says Vote Riders will do what it can in Wisconsin to help people vote.Jim Vondruska/The Globe and Mail

The pandemic has already disproportionately killed Black Americans, and the fear of activists such as Ms. Johnson is that it will further reinforce the barriers states such as Wisconsin have erected to voting.

Mr. Trump, for his part, is fighting to make voting harder. There are currently more than 50 lawsuits across the U.S., in which Republicans and conservative groups are seeking to restrict the ways voters can cast ballots. In Wisconsin, they are trying to stop a Democratic attempt to have the state accept mail-in votes up to six days after election day, a move meant as a safeguard in the case of slow postal service. In Pennsylvania, Mr. Trump’s campaign is suing to block the state from setting up drop boxes where voters can submit their ballots as an alternative to returning them by mail. And a court in Iowa rejected 92,000 applications for absentee ballots because local officials had prepopulated them with voters' information to make it easier for people to complete.

The President has said that he wants Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court before the election to give him a strong conservative majority on ballot-access questions that may determine the outcome of the vote.

Louis DeJoy, a Republican megadonor installed in June as postmaster-general, has run a cost-cutting campaign that has seen mail take weeks to arrive or not get delivered at all, raising fears that voters will not be able to return absentee ballots in time. In an interview with Fox Business, Mr. Trump said he wanted to block plans by congressional Democrats to allocate US$28.5-billion to USPS, specifically so he could derail efforts to expand absentee voting. “They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” the President said.

The Republicans are also planning to dispatch 50,000 “poll watchers” to monitor for potential instances of fraud. The party was banned from doing this in the past, after court rulings that such efforts were used to intimidate Democratic voters. But in 2018, a court reversed these previous prohibitions.

At one early voting location in Fairfax, Va., a heavily Democratic Washington suburb, a group of Trump supporters stood in front of the door last month and chanted “four more years” at voters waiting in line. In Philadelphia last week, Republican officials tried to barge into local elections offices to video voters picking up absentee ballots.

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” the President said during the debate with Mr. Biden. “Bad things happen in Philadelphia.” The President has repeatedly refused to promise he will accept the results of the election if he loses.

A City of Milwaukee Election Commission worker sorts mail-in ballots for Wisconsin's primary election.Mark Hoffman

Mr. Trump has cited no evidence of widespread voter fraud. A commission he set up after the 2016 election to investigate his unsubstantiated claims that millions of people had voted illegally for Hillary Clinton was disbanded a year later after finding nothing. Five states, including conservative Utah, have mailed ballots to all voters for years, and none has experienced significant problems. Mr. Trump himself even voted by absentee ballot in Florida’s congressional primary last month.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, voting-rights advocates are focused less on battling the new rules than trying to get people to the polls in spite of them.

“The emphasis is, rather than fight them and make noises about how unfair this is, is to say, ‘this is the system, so we need to get as many people as possible the ID that’s required under the current stringent extreme law in order to vote.' And hopefully we can live another day to change the law,” said Jay Heck, Common Cause’s executive director in the state.

Among other things, he said, Common Cause is recruiting people to monitor polling places on election day and fight back against anyone who tries to discourage people from voting.

These efforts are unfolding against the backdrop of a mass movement against racism and police brutality that swept the country this summer. It zeroed in on Wisconsin in August after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back during an arrest in Kenosha, sparking protests in which some demonstrators burned businesses and cars. Then, a 17-year-old vigilante gunned down two anti-racism protesters with an AR-15.

Mr. Trump has tried to stir up animus against the demonstrators, deriding them as a “mob.”

In Kenosha, an industrial city of 100,000 south of Milwaukee, Black residents saw police brutality as yet another reason to vote in November.

Colesha Lyttle, a 44-year-old health care worker, said she knew people who didn’t cast a ballot in 2016. This time around, she said, she would drive them to the polls if that’s what it took to get them to turn out. “A lot of minority voters didn’t vote – they took it for granted that Hillary would win,” she said. “Every vote counts. You can’t be complacent.”

To Ms. McGee all of it – voter suppression, institutional racism and an incendiary President – have combined to raise the stakes in the fall ballot.

“We need to get the guy that’s there now out. He’s a narcissist, he has caused division,” she said. “There are people out there who still have that mentality from the fifties and sixties, and all that is coming to the forefront. He drew all those people out by inciting them.”

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