Can Low-Income Voters Make the Difference in Wisconsin?

Fight for 15

Fight for 15 canvasser Reyna Gengler 

As Election Day arrives, the Wisconsin governor’s race between incumbent Republican Scott Walker and Democrat Tony Evers is, according to some polls, a virtual tie. As the ubiquitous saying goes, “It all comes down to turnout,” and progressive groups in Wisconsin are working to make sure low-income voters can make that difference.

Low-income voters often sit out elections—especially midterms—for a number of reasons: They’re much less likely to have a government-issued ID, which can dampen turnout in states with strict voter-ID laws, as it did in Wisconsin in 2016. Various policies further restrict access, like rigorous address requirements that make it more difficult for a person that may move frequently—which low-income people are more like to do—to register to vote. They also might have to work on Election Day, sometimes more than one job, at places with unstable scheduling where it’s hard to get time off. Or they might have caregiving responsibilities, and can’t afford to pay someone else to take over. And importantly, they might not believe that a new face in office is really going to change their situation.

But Milwaukee residents Wanda Lavender and Reyna Gengler, who have worked with the Fight for 15’s canvassing in North Milwaukee say that this election is different. “People are listening [to us],” Lavender says. “We have a voice.” 

Gengler voted for the first time—ever—this year. “I’m 41 years old,” she says, “I’ve never voted before … but I’ve come to see that my voice does matter. And [this community is] not getting our needs met from Scott Walker.”

Lavender and Gengler both have a long list of changes they’d like to see in their city, including union rights and affordable health care, but first and foremost is higher wages—all issues that Evers has championed. Lavender works two jobs, 60 to 70 hours per week, and neither job provides health care. One of her jobs is teaching at a day care—she’s worked there for 12 years and has always received $9 per hour. Her other job is at Popeye’s, where she fares no better. “I should be able to make $15 an hour and take care of my children,” she says. “I should be able to keep my gas and electricity paid and pay for child care if I need it. … You get in one of these [low-wage] jobs, and you’re stuck.”

Gengler has a long history of “being in and out of jobs,” she says, including one in which her boss didn’t give her a paycheck one week. “If I had a union representative, I could have spoken to someone about my situation” and not have had to leave the job, she says.

Instead of persuading conservative voters to vote blue, the Fight for 15, the SEIU-backed initiative to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, has been canvassing neighborhoods in North Milwaukee. Residents are predominately low-income and people of color, and turnout in the 2016 election was extremely depressed. In one district, according to a post-2016 election article in The New York Times, turnout declined almost 20 percent compared to 2012.

“I take all my available time to go help out [canvassers] as much as I can,” says Lavender, who, in addition to her two jobs, is raising six children as a single mother. “I want to be able to tell my kids, ‘Look, Mom is standing up and making a change.’”

Gengler, who knocks on hundreds of doors a week, “thought she was alone [in her financial struggles], but came to find out the community is with me.” She says she spoke with a woman who had been without her medication for months because she couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. The possibility of a higher wage, union rights, and better health care “motivates me every single day to come speak to people, to listen to people,” she says.

recent study from the Urban Institute found that 40 percent of nonelderly adults had trouble meeting their basic needs in 2017. The study also found that public assistance programs—specifically food stamps, cash welfare, and Medicaid—reduce reported hardships by almost half in families with children and food insecurity by nearly 75 percent. As governor, Walker led a full-scale attack on welfare across Wisconsin, implementing drug testing, work requirements, and other restrictions in many programs, even when he may not have had the legal authority.

Like many Democratic candidates running left, Evers is backing the pro-worker policies that have excited Gengler and Lavender and gained fervor across the country. “I think by the end of my first term we will be there,” Evers said of a $15 minimum wage. He has also pledged to expand Medicaid to adults living under 138 percent of the poverty line. (Arkansas began requiring Medicaid recipients to report work in June, and since then, about 8,500 people have been booted from the program in two months alone.) And as Evers is backed by unions, his supporters also hope he would reverse the package of anti-union legislation that made Walker such a darling of the right-to-work crowd beginning in 2011.

“I just hope once [Evers] gets into office,” if he is indeed elected, says Lavender, “that he does what he says he will.”

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