*Published with the generous permission of David Pepper. Read and watch more of his work here.
By David Pepper
You know it’s bad when they’re bragging about it.
And they are.
Voter turnout in largely Democratic Milwaukee fell by 37,000 votes between 2018 and 2022.
(Reminder: Senate candidate Mandela Barnes lost the entire state by just 26,000 votes).
It’s a decline a local GOP elections official crowed about in a recent email:
“We can be especially proud of the City of Milwaukee (80.2% Dem Vote) casting 37,000 less votes than cast in the 2018 election with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas”
He even cited elements of the “well thought out multi-faceted plan” which achieved this “great and important decrease,” including a “substantial & very effective Republican Coordinated Election Integrity program resulting with lots of Republican paid Election Judges & trained Observers & extremely significant continued Court Litigation.”
But Milwaukee is not an isolated case. Cities around the country are targeted for suppression through a variety of measures, from purging of the rolls to strict voter ID laws to rollbacks of early voting. Removal of drop boxes is all about city voters.
Cleveland saw a precipitous drop of registered voters between 2008 and 2015–from 374k voters to 246k voters—and despite numerous efforts to register voters there, the numbers have never bounced back. The urban cores of other Ohio cities have also seen their registration and voting numbers plummet.
And the effect on elections is real. Cuyahoga County (which includes Cleveland) is the county that delivered the presidency to Barack Obama in 2012. (Ie. With all 87 other counties’ votes in, Obama trailed Romney by well over 100,000 votes. But once Cleveland and Cuyahoga numbers came in, Obama had won Ohio decisively).
In 2016 and 2020, Clinton and Biden won a greater percentage of registered voters in Cuyahoga County than Obama did in that decisive 2012 victory. But so many voters had been purged in the intervening years that their margin of victory by actual votes was 40,000 votes fewer. The purging essentially means that you can win a greater percentage of voters yet still lose ground.
What to do?
Obviously, lawsuits and legislation are both needed.
But beyond that? The truth is, even before that Milwaukee email, we know exactly what their targets are. Cities. The urban vote is what they are working the hardest to suppress.
And amid a lot of work to be done to fight back, nothing would make a bigger difference than the Mayors and Councils of these cities deciding to use their entire city footprint to fight back on behalf of the residents who state suppressors are openly targeting.
Every public-facing service provided by US cities should add lifting democracy to its core mission…from assisting those they serve in registration, early voting and getting IDs when necessary.
Every rec Center, every health clinic, every transportation mode, every library, etc.
Just as it’s a legitimate function of a city to work hard to get an accurate Census count, it’s just as important and legitimate to lift all residents back into a democracy they are being systematically removed from.
Beyond direct services, every city dollar sent to a citizen-serving non-profit should also include a mandate that those non-profits also lift those they serve into democracy. Many of these agencies—such as food banks, homeless shelters, etc—are serving the very people who are being disenfranchised by those attacking democracy.
The lesson has become painfully clear…waiting and hoping that campaigns themselves will register and re-register enough voters to overcome the suppression is not good enough. It’s too late, and it’s not nearly enough to overcome the scale of the suppression juggernaut.
We need to make this work part of the core mission of cities (counties, too, btw) where the most damage is being done…and at this point, openly bragged about.
See if your city is doing this work. If not, ask them why not. Then push them to do it.
Let’s hear city leaders everywhere brag about all the people they added to the rolls!