Wisconsin is one of the key swing states in the presidential election. Over the past decade, the Republican-controlled State Legislature has enacted voter ID laws and other new voting policies that make it harder for many residents to vote, particularly Black Wisconsinites. For the episode “Whose vote will count?” – a collaboration with APM Reports and Wisconsin Watch – Reveal reporter Ike Sriskandarajah talked to voters in his home state about inequality and elections in the state.
Where in Wisconsin did you grow up?
My brother and my parents were born in Sri Lanka. I was born after they made a couple of moves and stuck the landing in Richland Center, Wisconsin. Two things you should know about Richland Center: It's the birthplace of Frank Lloyd Wright and death place of Stalin's only daughter, who defected to the United States and ended up in this relatively small town in the Driftless region of southern Wisconsin. It was a great place to grow up. More recently, Richland Center became known for its longtime legislator Dale Schultz, who was one of the most outspoken Republican critics of his own party’s union busting and gerrymandering.
What do you think people might not know about racial politics in Wisconsin?
Milwaukee is home to about 70% of the Black population in Wisconsin and has a reputation as one of the worst places to be a Black person in the country. Milwaukee is the most segregated city in America, and the state has the highest rate of incarceration for Black men. Wisconsin, statewide, also has the largest achievement gap between Black and White students and the highest infant mortality rate for Black babies. Madison is consistently named among the best places to live in the country. But it's the capital city of one of the worst places to live if you're Black.
How does America's public image of Wisconsin compare to the reality?
Well, here's a personal example: My wife and I live in New York, but both our families live in Madison. During the pandemic, we were about to have a kid, and the hospitals in New York started changing the rules about whether pregnant mothers would have to deliver alone. It was kind of scary, and we decided to go back to Wisconsin to have the baby there. This was just after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, and there were Black Lives Matter demonstrations all over the country. There was a demonstration outside our hospital in Madison. This was the first time I learned of the infant mortality rates for Black babies in this county and across Wisconsin. That felt like such a stark example: We came here because it’s safe, but it’s really not safe for all people in Wisconsin.
How has voting changed in Wisconsin over the last 10 years?
Republican lawmakers have made it harder for everybody to vote. In particular, the restrictions on early voting and a voter ID law have made it disproportionately harder for Black Wisconsinites to vote.
Why do you think it’s so important to report on Wisconsin in this election?
Wisconsin is a must-win state. All roads to the White House seem to pass through Wisconsin. And who gets to vote there? The gatekeepers have been making it harder for everybody to vote – and, in particular, making it hard for Black people to be heard in this state on this important decision.
You can follow Ike Sriskandarajah on Twitter at @RadioIke. Listen to the episode: Whose vote will count?
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