Young and Black Voters Turn Out in Wisconsin Despite Suppression Efforts

Robo-calls, residency rules and misinformation about a voter ID law stirred confusion among young voters in particular during yesterday's recall vote of Gov. Scott Walker. But turnout remained high--if not enough to counter Walker's well-funded campaign.

By Brentin Mock Jun 06, 2012

It may not feel like there’s anything positive to make out of the unsuccessful bid to recall Gov. Scott Walker in yesterday’s Wisconsin elections, but there were hints of optimism. Young voters and African-American voters did more than their part to show up, according to exit polls and early reports, despite significant efforts to confuse and challenge them from groups that profess to be fighting voter fraud. 

In Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s seven-point loss to Walker, voters aged 18-29 increased their slice of the electorate from 15 percent in 2010 to 16 percent yesterday. Black voters came out mob-deep. John Nichols, who’s been covering Wisconsin inside-out for The Nation, reported, "Turnout was up dramatically, so much so that on election day election clerks had to be shifted to predominantly African-American wards."

This was mainly true in Racine and Milwaukee, where young people and people of color have seen enough murder and lack of educational and economic opportunity to drive them to the polls, recall or not.

"We had several hundred youth out there showing that they are invested in their future, that they do understand the politics of today and that if folks are willing to listen to us we can help create meaningful change," said the deputy director of the League of Young Voters, Carey Jenkins, who simply goes by "C. J." He noted that in the last six weeks, League youth knocked on over 110,000 doors. "It felt like 2008 all over again." A Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal-Sentinal graph shows the shift in youth votes between 2010 and 2012:

(From Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinal Online)

It wasn’t enough to carry the whole state, which mostly went to Walker. One takeaway from this election, though, is that massive grassroots organizing is no longer the exclusive domain of Democrats and their civil rights and labor allies. The right wing has found ways to go mob deep in their own way, as evidenced by the presence of the Tea Party group True the Vote, a group that wants their "poll observer" activities to make voters feel like the police are following them

True the Vote traveled all the way from Texas for this Wisconsin bout, stringing along hundreds if not thousands of poll observers from around the country. It’s worth examining how close they are working with the Republican Party.

By about 2 p.m., Carolyn Castore, who coordinated an initiative between Wisconsin Election Protection and the state’s League of Women Voters to field voter complaints, said she’d taken about 140 calls, mostly from college students who were challenged on their right to vote. Many of those students were challenged by True the Vote poll watchers, said Castore. (True the Vote mocked those students on Twitter).

College students were hampered by a new voter residency requirement that says a citizen must live in one location for 28 days in order to register to vote. Before the 2011 law went into effect the requirement was only 10 days. Many students graduated in mid-May, went home from campuses to live with their families, and thus were affected by the 28-day rule.

Also, a photo voter ID bill that passed this year, but was blocked by two judges, was not supposed to be in effect. But students complained about being challenged on ID grounds anyway.

All of that was bad enough, but then there were reports of robo-calls to voters’ phones telling them that if they signed the recall petition they didn’t have to vote, which was totally false information. Reid Magney, spokesman for the state’s Government Accountability Board said they received "a significant number" of complaints about these robo-calls, despite numerous media reports that "no big problems" were occurring during elections. State Sen. Lena C. Taylor has asked the GAB to launch an investigation into the mysterious calls.

Walker’s campaign denied having anything to do with the calls. Meanwhile, though, the Republican Party was having plenty of fun using iPhone and Facebook technology to keep Walker in office. Before yesterday’s election, the Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who hails from Wisconsin, swore that voter fraud was rampant in his home state. Gov. Walker echoed such sentiments, despite there being roughly 27 charges and convictions of fraud since 2004.

But after Walker’s win, Priebus unveiled a memo telling how they achieved victory:

We spearheaded a joint effort with neighboring states to drive grassroots supporters to Wisconsin, and we mobilized volunteers from across the country to get involved through our innovative online Social Victory Center and phone-from-home program. In the process, more than 3,400 Wisconsin volunteers have signed up to help the party. And the data collected by door-to-door volunteers for Governor Walker was all promptly added to the RNC’s data center, thanks to the use of iPads, iPhones, and iPods.

I’m not sure how you collect data with iPods, but the Social Victory Center is a GOP-created Facebook app that can send up to ten automatic messages from the Republican Party, from your cellphone. There’s no proof that Republicans used this app to spread misinformation in this election. But what their volunteer networks were up to yesterday, and what they’ll do through November will be worth watching.

Reibus’ "joint effort" with other states and "mobilized volunteers" sounds a lot like an effort deployed by True the Vote, who sent this message the day before the election:

True the Vote, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit grassroots organization focused on preserving election integrity, has joined forces with citizens from Wisconsin and around the country in an unprecedented effort; banding together to recruit, train, and mobilize Election Observers for Wisconsin’s June 5th Recall Election.

True the Vote will also sponsor command centers in key areas across Wisconsin to provide support for Election Observers on Tuesday, June 5th.

Hopefully, protecting "election integrity" didn’t mean harrassing student voters. But Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Benjamin Sparks bragged that they made contact with 3.5 million voters, "the largest grassroots campaign Republicans have ever had in the state."

It makes the League of Young Voters’ 110,000 number sound like chump change. That’s not to diminish the hard work the League did, going into Milwaukee neighborhoods to convince people who’ve been hardened by a brutal economy to register to vote. League canvassers were up at dawn, says C. J., knocking on doors, windows, and air conditioners to engage urban folks who are often the most distrustful of government, for understandable reasons. But the League doesn’t have the resources of the Repbulican Party and the Walker campaign, which spent almost $64 million on this election–$3 of every $5 coming from outside of Wisconsin.

So the Democrats were outspent, but it also sounds like they may not have made the most strategic use of the money they had. As Rep. Gwen Moore of Milwaukee told John Nichols in The Nation, "You can’t spend all your money on television. You’ve got to spend it on the ground. That’s the most important thing to take away from Wisconsin."

The League takes youth from the most violent and impoverished neighborhoods and gets them politically engaged. "You have young people knocking on doors in violent neighborhoods asking people to vote and that needs to be invested in because these kids are risking their lives to make change." Hopefully someone will take notice, while Republicans continue to invest in their version of change.