Black people have fought for and already died for the right to vote. Last year marked the 400th anniversary of West Africans’ arrival to this country as enslaved people. One hundred and fifty years ago, the 15th Amendment extended voting rights to male citizens, regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude. And 100 years ago, women won the right to participate in political decision-making. Each of these are milestones on our journey toward a society with just and fair conditions for everyone to be as healthy as possible. Progress noted.
In April, 2020, Black people in Wisconsin were forced to put their lives in jeopardy to exercise the right to vote ‒ again. In the city of Milwaukee, there were just five polling sites open (reduced from 180). Over the course of three days, residents were informed first, that the election had been postponed by executive order of the governor, second, that this executive order was overturned by the Wisconsin state Supreme Court, and third, that the United States Supreme Court had blocked the extension of absentee voting.
This political gamesmanship sowed chaos and confusion. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Milwaukee residents faced an imminent threat and cruel quandary: Vote in person and risk our lives. Don’t vote and lose our right to shape the future. These are not unfamiliar circumstances for many Black people whose bodies, minds and spirits have long been expendable.
As researchers who care deeply about equity, we observed and experienced the traumatization of our community. We watched with great alarm the predicament facing Milwaukeeans. Vote, and you risk your life, and the lives of others. Don’t vote, and you risk perpetuating the conditions that are causing harm and premature death in the first place.
So, we decided to do what we could, with the power we have. We reached out to local organizations and leveraged community assets to systematically document the potential public health risks of in-person voting. Knowing that collective memory in the U.S. is narrow and prone to erase the atrocities heaped on people of color, the need to create a historical record to inform empirical analysis and truth-telling was urgent.
We cannot understand racial inequities in health, economic opportunities and civic engagement in isolation. What is happening in Milwaukee in dramatic form is happening in many communities, as people of color face a “triple threat” of illness, voter disenfranchisement and economic ruin.
The extent of voter disenfranchisement will not be known for a few weeks, nor will the extent of lives lost as a result of the avoidable exposure to COVID-19 be quantified soon. No matter how this dreadful scenario ultimately plays out, relentless determination was on display in Milwaukee. People came out in force donned in whatever personal protective equipment could be assembled. Artists serenaded crowds of people who hailed from diverse neighborhoods and communities, forced to exercise their rights to vote together. Social solidarity among Milwaukeeans claimed the spotlight for a moment. We can only hope that in two weeks, the price was not too high to pay.
COVID-19 may become a distant memory by the November election, but we cannot take that for granted. The risk of another global pandemic causing racially inequitable havoc is something we should all worry about. We should vow again to become a more perfect union, and act in ways that demonstrate that all people are created equal, with unalienable rights. No one should have to choose between their fundamental right to life and an equally fundamental right to democracy.
(As of April 29, 2020 at least 52 people who worked at polls or voted in person in the April 7th election have tested positive for COVID-19.)
Sheri Johnson, a resident of Milwaukee, is associate professor and director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Population Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and Paru Shah is an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. They are researchers on a collaborative project on racial equity, public health, and civic engagement involving the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Riverside.