They Faced a Chaotic Primary. Now Wisconsin Voters Are Trying to Make Sure Their Ballots Count
Wisconsin voters shared their experiences with reporters and producers in "Whose Vote Counts," a documentary from FRONTLINE (PBS), Columbia Journalism Investigations, and the USA Today Network.
Wisconsin’s primary, on April 7, 2020, was one of the first U.S. elections held as the coronavirus pandemic intensified across the country.
The documentary team behind Whose Vote Counts was there to capture the story as it unfolded.
With a shortage of poll workers, the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, had opened only five polling places, instead of the typical 180 — a reduction found to have a disproportionate impact on Black voters. Claims of disenfranchisement and voter suppression mounted, as did legal and political battles between Republicans and Democrats. And amid fears of COVID-19, voters submitted an unprecedented number of absentee ballots — more than 23,000 of which were ultimately rejected.
In Whose Vote Counts, reporters and producers from FRONTLINE, Columbia Journalism Investigations, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA Today spoke with residents who encountered barriers to voting in April. FRONTLINE followed up with six of them in early November to hear how they are navigating the process of casting their ballots in the general election.
In April, as Wisconsin’s primary approached, 40-year-old Shavonda Sisson felt that voting in person could be a matter of life and death. She has asthma, putting her at higher risk for complications, should she contract COVID-19.
“You should not have to choose between your life and your vote,” said Sisson, who works and volunteers in organizations that promote community empowerment and social justice. “And your life is more important, at this point.”
So when the absentee ballot she had requested didn’t arrive in time, Sisson said, she was essentially unable to cast her vote — and she wasn’t alone: “I know lots of people who were not able to vote because they didn’t want to risk their health,” she told FRONTLINE.
Voting in the presidential election has been a more positive experience: “I felt very empowered because I kind of knew what to expect and what could possibly go wrong,” Sisson, who lives in the suburb of Shorewood, just north of Milwaukee, told FRONTLINE, adding that she felt “more in control” of the process.
Sisson, who has promoted voter turnout and education in her volunteer work, said she and her husband requested absentee ballots the first day it was possible to do so. They returned them in September — the same day her twin sons turned 18 and submitted their own voter registration paperwork — and then tracked the status of their ballots online.
At one point, she got a call from their election clerk, notifying Sisson that her ballot envelope was missing a witness address so that Sisson could correct it.
Using the state’s online tracker, Sisson has since confirmed that her corrected ballot was received. Had the process gone awry, she would have voted in person, she said, feeling more confident in safety measures now than in April, when the pandemic was just beginning.
“This time around, we know more about the virus,” she said.
Lisa Schnell’s vote didn’t count in Wisconsin’s primary.
“I didn’t get to vote, and I was so irritated I can’t even tell you,” Schnell told FRONTLINE. She needed her absentee ballot sent to her sister’s house, but it arrived at her place instead. By the time the ballot reached her, it was too late to make the deadline. And because she was caring for her father at the time, Schnell couldn’t go vote in person. Even though she knew it wouldn’t count, she filled in her ballot and sent it anyway, she said.
“I’ve voted in every election that I can remember since I could, when I was 18 years old,” said Schnell, who is 50. “I really value voting and understand that it is a hard-fought battle for women to have gotten to this place, and so many other people too.”
For the presidential election, Schnell said she requested an absentee ballot as early as she could. She and her daughter filled out their ballots and dropped them off in a dropbox in Shorewood, where she lives. This time, she said, the process was “smooth sailing.”
“I feel like my vote is probably going to be counted,” Schnell said. “We double-checked each other’s work to make sure we had everything signed.”
Schnell’s reasons for voting absentee in the general election were twofold: due to the pandemic, but also because she said she wanted to volunteer as a poll worker on Election Day. “I think this is a super important election — the most important election of my lifetime,” she said.
Rev. Greg Lewis
Despite fighting a COVID-19 infection during the spring primary, Rev. Greg Lewis, 62, was determined his vote would count.
As the executive director of Souls to the Polls, a coalition of Black churches working to help congregants vote, as well as the assistant pastor of St. Gabriel’s Church of God in Christ, in Milwaukee, Lewis told FRONTLINE: “I’m training all of these other ministers to get people out to vote. So it’s important I do it right.”
Although he was frustrated by the state moving forward with the scheduled primary during the pandemic — “It was such a putrid decision,” he said — Lewis filled out his absentee ballot. Rather than mailing it, he deposited it in an official dropbox. “I’m pretty sure it was counted, because I checked,” he said.
He followed the same procedure this fall. “I know how this thing goes,” Lewis told FRONTLINE. “So I got my ballot in early.”
He’s hopeful he has helped others do the same. “It’s very hard to convince people their votes count,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ve done a good job.”
Ahmee Vang had originally planned to vote by absentee ballot in Wisconsin’s April primary. But her ballot never arrived, she said. “I am a refugee, and so I know that voting is really important to me,” Vang told FRONTLINE.
Instead, she voted in person during the primary, a process she said took about three hours. Vang felt lucky to have been able to cast a ballot, since she knew not everyone had the ability to wait in line so long. Even so, “My voting experience in Wisconsin was something I did not think would happen in my lifetime,” Vang said.
Since the primary, Vang has moved to Idaho. Although Vang said she has the proper documentation to register and vote on Election Day in Boise, she said she’s nervous about casting her ballot — and about what could happen after the election. “It’s really just a scary time to see what’s going to happen,” she said.
Brin Riley’s inaugural attempt at absentee voting, in Wisconsin’s April primary, didn’t go well. “That was the first time I ever requested an absentee ballot, and obviously it was a pretty negative experience,” the 29-year-old told FRONTLINE.
When she didn’t receive her ballot by Election Day, Riley, who’s currently on furlough from the Milwaukee Bucks, debated going to vote in person but was concerned by photos she was seeing of long lines at Milwaukee’s five polling places.
“I just made the call not to go,” she said. “Then, the next day, I actually found out that someone in my apartment building recently passed away due to COVID. So, I’ve definitely been exposed,” she said. “I’m glad I didn’t go, because that would have potentially been bad.”
Riley’s attempt this past spring informed her approach to voting in the general election this fall. She said she requested a ballot as soon as Wisconsin voters were able to do so, received it in the mail about a week later and sent it back right away.
“I figured, the sooner the better,” she said. “I was hearing reports about so many people trying to vote absentee, and with the pandemic — which is still very much a thing here; it’s pretty bad right now, actually — I figured I’d be as responsible and quick as possible.”
Voting in 2020 has been an ordeal for Doniesha Higgins. In the spring primary, she requested an absentee ballot, but it never arrived, she said. For her, voting in person was out of the question: “My wife had COVID, so I was extremely nervous to stand around people in that much of a close proximity for that long amount of time,” she said.
Things didn’t improve much in the fall. “It was a fiasco,” Higgins, 37, of Milwaukee, told FRONTLINE. “I had to request [my absentee ballot] three times. The first time, I said, maybe it got lost in the mail, so I requested it again. Didn’t get it again.”
Meanwhile, she said, she was getting phone calls every day, reminding her to vote.
Her third try was a success. “I did get it, at the very end — like the last day — so I hurried up and sent it off,” she said. When she tracked her ballot online, Higgins saw it was scheduled to be delivered the day before the deadline. “I think it did get counted,” she said.
“It’s always something,” Higgins told FRONTLINE. “It almost deters me from wanting to vote, but I wanted to be sure I voted this time.”
For more on voting rights, voter suppression and election integrity in Wisconsin, watch Whose Vote Counts, a documentary from FRONTLINE, Columbia Journalism Investigations, Columbia Journalism School and USA TODAY NETWORK reporters, led by correspondent Jelani Cobb, director June Cross and producer Tom Jennings. Whose Vote Counts premiered Tues., Oct. 20, 2020, on PBS stations and is now available to stream in FRONTLINE’s online collection of streaming films, on YouTube, in the PBS Video App and below: