By Nyia Sallee
Growing up, I sometimes heard older family members from Mississippi who had lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960s talk about how black people put their lives on the line to exercise their constitutional right to vote. I read history books about selfless men and women who had sacrificed their lives so that future generations — people like me — could vote. Never, in a million years, did I dream that in 2020–55 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed, and almost 20 before I was even born — I would have to risk my life to vote.
But that’s exactly what I was forced to do on Tuesday, April 7, along with hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters, after a federal judge refused on April 2 to postpone the primary election despite the potential life-threatening dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The day before the election, both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Wisconsin Supreme Court put partisan politics ahead of people’s lives by rejecting efforts to delay our state’s primary election. Still, the thought of not voting and not exercising my sacred duty never crossed my mind. My vote is how I honor those who gave their lives for me to vote. My vote is how I protect the rights of those who come after me.
But people’s lives should have been more important. My vote should not potentially cost me my life.
Early on primary election day, my husband and I arrived at our polling place — which was one of only five polling sites open, compared with the normal 180, in Milwaukee — at 6:55 a.m. We both were wearing masks and gloves and were carrying a supply of anti-bacterial wipes and hand sanitizer. We were ready, but the Wisconsin Elections Commission clearly was not. They had not required voters to wear masks, there were no lines on the ground to mark how far apart people should stand, and there were no poll workers making sure that safe social distancing was being observed. Even elderly people and folks with canes stood in the long lines for almost an hour with the rest of us before they were offered assistance.
After standing in line for nearly 40 minutes, my husband and I were told we were in the wrong line, so we moved to another line at the back of the building to continue to wait. While we waited on line, we met a number of voters who said they had applied for absentee ballots well before the required deadlines but had never received them. We also spoke with an older man who — like many other black residents of Milwaukee — had migrated from Mississippi decades earlier. He said standing in line waiting to vote while worrying about getting sick with COVID-19 brought back memories of the fear African Americans in the South faced half a century ago.
Finally, after almost two hours, I was able to cast my ballot.
What I find interesting is that when I got home, I learned on the news that voters in some of the suburbs were able to vote from the safety of their cars. In Madison, our state capital, voters weren’t forced to stand in long lines. This isn’t the first time that voters in Milwaukee, the largest city in the state with some of the highest concentrations of African Americans and people of color, have been subjected to efforts to suppress voter turnout. I recognize the many tactics that are used to try to keep African Americans from voting.
But this — what happened on April 7 — does feel like one of the most irresponsible and dangerous examples of voter suppression I’ve ever witnessed and experienced.
On April 22, just two weeks after Wisconsin’s primary election, state health officials reported that at least 19 people who voted in person have tested positive for the coronavirus. Those 19 people received positive test results after April 9, two days after the election. Am I a little afraid? Yes. Do I regret voting? Absolutely not!
I know that people fought and died for my right to vote. Many of the decisions that affect our communities, our jobs and our families get made by the people we elect; so, I will always choose to vote.
In November, our nation will hold what I believe is one of the most important elections in my lifetime. And the truth is, there still may be many uncertainties around the coronavirus and our safety on Election Day. Nov. 3, 2020, is almost six months away. Our state officials and elected leaders have time now to make a plan to keep voters safe while allowing all citizens to engage in this most crucial civic process. The question is, will they? Will some officials place more value on partisan politics than on the lives of people like me?
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.” I hope against hope — and against what I have seen — that our state leaders will do the right thing and make our elections in November safe and open for all voters.
Nyia Sallee is a member and Solidarity Committee chair of the Milwaukee Area Technical College Federation, AFT Local 212, a PSRP vice president of AFT-Wisconsin, and an educational assistant at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. Nyia’s article first appeared in AFT Voices on April 27.