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People waited in long lines to vote in April 2020 at Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Wis. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) People waited in long lines to vote in April 2020 at Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Wis. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

People waited in long lines to vote in April 2020 at Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Wis. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

By Lawrence Andrea August 14, 2020

Barnes misses with claim linking cut in polling places with 'racist disenfranchisement'

If Your Time is short

  • There is no indication "racial disenfranchisement" was the goal of having just 5 open polling places in Milwaukee during Wisconsin’s spring election

  • Other factors, like the city’s shortage of election workers, contributed to the consolidation

  • The closure of polling places did appear to disproportionately affect Black voters, but that’s not how Barnes framed his claim

The political mudslinging surrounding who is responsible for Wisconsin’s chaotic spring election is not quite over. 

In an Aug. 10, 2020, op-ed in The Progressive, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes a Democrat, blamed the Republican-led state Legislature for exacerbating racial inequalities in the state and described efforts to disenfranchise Black voters — "from gerrymandering our districts to making the simple task of voting unnecessarily arduous."

He then said: "We have one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country, and we saw a new kind of racist disenfranchisement play out during our catastrophic April 7 election, when there were only five polling places in Milwaukee, instead of the usual 180."

Was GOP-backed "racist disenfranchisement" behind the decision to have only five polling places open in Milwaukee during the spring election?

Let’s take a look.

The background

Barnes isn’t the first person to point fingers in the wake of the tumultuous spring election.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin in early July accused Democrats of closing down voting locations in some of Wisconsin's largest cities — including Milwaukee — during the election "to cause chaos."

We rated that claim False, noting the decision to consolidate polling places largely came down to poll worker shortages. There also wasn’t evidence to suggest Democrats would benefit from the chaos or from discouraging votes. 

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin later claimed Republicans pushed for longer lines and limited voting time amid the pandemic. 

We rated that claim Mostly False, noting the statement ignored GOP calls for early voting. Republicans did push for in-person voting during the election, but it was a stretch to say they "pushed" for long polling lines. What’s more, the number of open polling places was a local decision.

The claim

When asked to back up the claim, Chet Agni, a spokesperson for Barnes’ campaign, said Barnes’ claim was not that racist disenfranchisement caused only five polling places to be open but rather that disenfranchisement was "an effect of only five polling places being open."

But that’s not the way it was presented.

In the opinion piece, the claim included a litany of criticisms of actions by the Republican-controlled Legislature, such as gerrymandering and voter ID laws and then immediately called the limited polling places "a new kind of racist disenfranchisement."

So, let’s start with some of the basics on the election.

In his opinion piece, Barnes included a link to an April 9, 2020 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article that examined the reason for the limited number of polling sites in Milwaukee.

In it, Neil Albrecht, then-executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, attributed the small number of polling locations in the city to a shortage of poll workers who expressed concerns about safety at the polls.

In the end, Gov. Tony Evers allowed National Guard troops to assist at the polls, but Milwaukee officials said that decision came too late for them to adjust and open more locations.  

Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told PolitiFact Wisconsin voting policies in Wisconsin over the past decade — when Republicans have generally controlled state government — have had "a disproportionate impact on communities of color, as well as other vulnerable voting groups."

But Mayer added he does "not see evidence that the (election officials) had the goal of disenfranchising Black voters" when reducing the number of Milwaukee polling places from 180 to five. 

He said the consolidation of polling places made it more difficult for all voters in Milwaukee to get to the polls and noted polling place movement and consolidation is "frequently a strategy used to make voting more difficult for minority voters."

A complex issue

The issue, though, is a complex one.

GOP lawmakers fought efforts to delay the April election and took a move by Evers to do so to the state Supreme Court, which ruled the election must be held as planned.

And Republicans fought an effort to extend the deadline to return a mailed-in absentee ballot beyond the day of the election. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling the day before the election held that no ballots postmarked after election day should be counted. 

Yet, the number of polling sites were reduced throughout the city -- not just in neighborhoods with more Black voters. And reducing the number of polling places was a local decision by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, and city election officials — not by Republicans. 

In the end, all of that undermines the idea that racial disenfranchisement was the purpose of the dramatically reduced number of polling places. 

But what about Barnes’ contention that racial disenfranchisement was the result?

His aide, Agni, pointed to a June 24, 2020 study from the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning public policy institute, that found the consolidation of polling places in Milwaukee during the April election reduced turnout among Black voters by 10.2% compared to past elections. Turnout among non-Black voters decreased by around 8.5% due to the consolidation, according to the study. 

Agni also cited an analysis of election data from researchers at two advocacy groups, All Voting Is Local and Demos, that found average voter turnout in Black and Hispanic wards was 30 percentage points lower than the average voter turnout in white wards.

We did our own analysis of Spring election data for Milwaukee and found more than 53 percent fewer ballots were cast in majority-Black wards in 2020 than 2016. Roughly 37 percent fewer ballots were cast in majority-white wards in 2020 than in 2016. 

It was difficult to determine how many of these were cast absentee, and — as such — would not be determined by the number of in-person polling locations. 

Meanwhile, there may be other factors at play as well, such as the fact the 2016 primary included competitive contests on the Republican and Democratic sides, while that was not the case in 2020.

Our rating

Barnes claimed that GOP-backed "racist disenfrachisement" led to only five polling places being open in Milwaukee for April 7 election.

While closing polling places did appear to have a disproportionate impact on Black voters, the context of the claim suggests the goal of closing polling places was racial disenfranchisement. While Republican maneuvering contributed to the chaos and uncertainty around the election, decisions on polling places were made in Milwaukee, not Madison. 

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

The Progressive, A Path Forward for Wisconsin, August 10, 2020

PolitiFact, Wisconsin Dems ignore key details in saying GOP pushed for longer lines and limited voting time, July 17, 2020

PolitiFact, Wisconsin GOP misfires by saying Democratic mayors closed polling places to ‘cause chaos', July 14, 2020

PolitiFact, Does Wisconsin’s new voter ID law ‘disenfranchise’ voters?, June 12, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, What we know so far about why Milwaukee only had 5 voting sites for Tuesday's election while Madison had 66, April 9, 2020

Email exchange with Kenneth Mayer, professor of political science at UW-Madison, Aug. 11, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin justices block Tony Evers' order to shut down election, U.S. Supreme Court restricts absentee voting, April 6, 2020.

Milwaukee Journal Senntinel, Milwaukee normally has 180 voting sites; because of coronavirus, fewer than 12 polling places will be open April 7, March 31, 2020

The Brennan Center for Justice, Did Consolidating Polling Places in Milwaukee Depress Turnout?, June 24, 2020, COVID-19 Silenced Voters of Color in Wisconsin, May 14, 2020

City of Milwaukee, Voter Turnout by Ward 2016, July 26, 2019

City of Milwaukee, Voter Turnout by Ward 2020, April 30, 2020
City of Milwaukee, Voting Ward Demographics, August 13, 2019

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Barnes misses with claim linking cut in polling places with 'racist disenfranchisement'

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