Kerry Schumann shares a story about the Get Out The Vote campaign when Wisconsin held its election during a pandemic. This story was originally recorded and shared as part of an episode of the Madison podcast Inside Stories. Listen to that episode and subscribe to the podcast here: https://inside-stories.simplecast.com/episodes/inside-stories-covid-19-stories-3
Narrator Name: Kerry Schumann
Date of interview: 4/15/2020
The first images I saw from the polls on election day came out of Milwaukee. Hundreds of people standing in line before the polls even opened. Milwaukee, a city that typically has one hundred and eighty polling sites, had just five places for people to vote. I wanted to be inspired by these people, who risked everything to cast their vote, and I was inspired by them, but even more so, I felt rage.
I work for Wisconsin Conservation Voters, where we tell people everyday, “Your voice, your action, and your vote, hold the power to protect Wisconsin’s air, land, water, and health.” When it comes to elections we work overtime; knocking on doors, recruiting volunteers, pulling together call lists. Some of the work is inspiring, some of it’s mundane, but it’s all worth it because it allows ordinary people to have an impact on the policies that impact their lives.
When election day arrived on April seventh, Wisconsin had been in Safer at Home mode for two weeks because of COVID-19. We were told not to interact with anyone outside of those living with us. All non-essential businesses were closed. Trips out of the house were limited to groceries, and even that felt scary and full of peril. We watched on our screens as New York City set up mobile hospitals and makeshift morgues. And yet, here we were in Wisconsin, sending thousands of people to dangerous, and even deadly circumstances so that they could cast their vote.
Oh, we had tried to delay the elections. The governor attempted to make sure voters wouldn’t have to go to the polls, but, as the nation watched in shock, his efforts were stopped. First by two legislators, who thought their party would benefit from lower turn out, and then by two different courts. Wisconsin was asking voters to risk their health and their lives to vote. I felt rage.
The first time I was involved with get out the vote work was in college, when I ran a voter registration campaign at UW Madison. Back then it was fun. Jesse Jackson came to campus, he gave an inspiring speech in the fieldhouse. And while the Reverend Jackson sang with UW gospel choir, energizing the crowd, we registered thousands of students. At the same time, in my history classes, I was learning about black people in the south fighting for their right to vote. I was learning about the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer, about the people who lost their lives fighting for this fundamental right. I was angry, I was inspired, and I knew I had found my life’s work. But it was academic, it did not yet fuel rage.
For the past twenty years I’ve worked with voters to elect people to all levels of office. I’ve worked with voters to influence decisions made in the Wisconsin capital, in Washington, and in town halls. They inspire me over, and over, and over again. I’m inspired when I meet a person whose entire family is sick, after unknowingly drinking contaminated water for years, and yet, they come forward to fight against the polluter. I’m inspired when a busy parent takes precious time to knock on doors during an election, and when someone donates some of their modest income to help insure other’s voices are heard.
And I was inspired this election day when so many people volunteered to help voters who were confused by the rules of the election, rules that had changed repeatedly in the days leading up to Election Day. But still, I mostly felt rage. But, rage or no rage, there was work to be done, to make sure that every person who received an absentee ballot knew where to send it before the day was over. So, from my comfortable home in Madison, I talked with voters all day: helping them find ballot drop boxes in their communities, letting them know they could still mail their absentee ballot in. The sun was shining, it was warm enough to sit outside while I talked to voters. I noticed the daffodils had started to bloom in my yard.
But the more I listened to these voters, the more my rage grew. Hearing from people quarantined with COVID-19, with ballots sitting on their kitchen tables, but no way to deliver them without contaminating another person. Lines in Milwaukee and Green Bay lasting well into the night, with the last person casting their vote after 10:00 p.m. A ninety-three year old World War Two veteran whose absentee ballot never arrived, and he couldn’t cast his ballot for the first time since he was eighteen. The man who marched with Father Groppi for civil rights, who couldn’t vote for the first time in thirty years. And my rage grew because, almost certainly, people will get sick and some will even lose their lives, because a few small-minded politicians decided their lives don’t matter.
So, today, I’ll let myself feel rage. Maybe tomorrow I’ll still feel rage. But, at some point in the not too distant future, I’ll set that aside, I’ll allow myself to be inspired by the people who volunteered their time to make sure people could vote, by the people who worked the polls for fourteen hours or more, and, most importantly, by the voters who showed up, risked their lives to make sure their vote was cast, and that the politicians who tried to shut them down were not successful. And that combination of rage and inspiration will drive me forward, on to the next fight.