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Black voter turnout has declined in Wisconsin. Democrats see reversing that trend as key to Senate victory.

To win, Mandela Barnes will need to run up the score in Democratic strongholds like Milwaukee. That could largely hinge on his ability to reverse a recent decline in Black voter turnout.
Image: Mandela Barnes
Mandela Barnes during a campaign event in Milwaukee, on Aug. 7.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

MILWAUKEE — After Mandela Barnes gave a brief but impassioned speech at a predominantly Black church here on a recent Sunday morning, parishioner Amber Smith said she was “very impressed.”

She said the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate gave “very strong remarks,” and she praised him for having spoken “with conviction.”

But Smith, a 30 year-old Milwaukee resident who works in higher education, signaled that she remained undecided on whether to vote for him — or whether to vote at all.

“I’m leaning toward it, but I need to know more,” she said.

Smith’s comments underscore a challenge for the Barnes campaign. To win statewide in November, Barnes, the state’s current lieutenant governor, will need to run up the score in Wisconsin's two largest population centers: Milwaukee and Madison, both Democratic strongholds.

A large part of that lift will hinge on his ability to aggressively turn out Black voters, a key Democratic constituency. Black voter turnout across the state has declined in recent electoral cycles.

And in a purple state — President Joe Biden won it in 2020 by fewer than 21,000 votes and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers won it by fewer than 30,000 votes in 2018 — the race promises to be close, meaning a robust turnout effort by Democrats in every pocket of Milwaukee County will be crucial to victory. Voter registration in the state is approaching record levels for a midterm year, according to data released earlier this month by the Wisconsin Elections Commission, and includes a record number of young voters, though the commission, which oversees elections in the state, does not collect the information by party affiliation.

State Democrats and organizers say that the issue before them isn’t whether many Black voters are deciding between Barnes — who made history as the state's first Black lieutenant governor — and the Republican incumbent, Sen. Ron Johnson. It's whether they'll vote at all.

“You have to keep making clear the strength and power of their vote and that when Black voters come out they make the difference,” said the Rev. Greg Lewis, the co-founder and executive director of Souls to the Polls Wisconsin, a voter engagement nonprofit organization that works mostly in African American neighborhoods. 

“This is a time where the minority vote is going to be critical, just by virtue of the fact that our white brothers and sisters are split right down the middle. If we convince these folks that have the power, that power will [allow Democrats to] win,” he said.

The stakes appeared clear to Barnes as well.

“You show up in the community and don’t take any area for granted,” he told NBC News in a recent interview.

Despite the fact that more Wisconsinites voted in 2020 than ever before, turnout in Black-majority wards declined from 2016. That followed a dramatic drop in 2016 from 2012. Overall turnout in Milwaukee County was virtually flat in 2020 compared with the 2016 level. Strategists and politics watchers have suggested that Black turnout likely fell in 2020 for reasons related to the pandemic, while in 2016, they’ve pointed both to a lack of on-the-ground efforts by the Hillary Clinton campaign as well as a strict voter ID law that sowed confusion, particularly among Black voters in Milwaukee County. Democrats note that in 2018, the most recent midterm cycle, Democratic turnout, both statewide and in Milwaukee County, increased from 2014 levels, and some data suggested that Black voter turnout had increased as well.

Barnes' campaign said it was mobilizing various groups to organize get out the vote efforts and would continue to prioritize outreach to Black community leaders and faith leaders in Milwaukee and throughout the state.

Organizers and party officials, for their part, contend they’ve continued to build out robust turnout operations targeting the Black community and are confident they’ll get voters to the polls. The state Democratic Party retooled its turnout and voter contact operations — including creating teams designed to target Black voters — after the 2016 election. Several Black voter engagement organizations have formed in the state in the last six years, while existing ones have largely scaled up.

“I don’t think we’ve had a full court press like this for a long time,” said Lewis, the Souls to the Polls Wisconsin leader.

Between now and Nov. 8, Souls to the Polls Wisconsin has, in partnership with other groups, set a goal to knock on the doors of 200,000 people mostly in majority-Black communities throughout the state. Lewis said the number represented a much more ambitious goal than in past election cycles.

“We’re specifically targeting folks who haven’t voted in the last two elections,” Lewis said.

Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, a group created following the 2016 election, said it has already contacted 35,000 people via phone and 804,000 via text and knocked on more than 56,000 doors in Milwaukee County since February.

In 2018, the group knocked on 173,000 doors but did not undertake calls and texts. The group targets only majority-Black neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties.

The group’s number one priority is “to turn a nonvoter into a voter,” said BLOC's founder and executive director Angela Lang. “That requires a year-round conversation. Doing that, and getting it done, in September or October is quite difficult. You need to engage year-round to really make it happen,” she said.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party, meanwhile, said it has kept its neighborhood action teams active. There are "a couple hundred across the state," a party spokesperson said, and their volunteer members are charged with door-knocking, letter-writing and phone- and text-banking year-round.

"We’re going to be in person this time, unlike in 2020, and we know how these [voter ID] laws work and how to get through them, make sure eligible voters cast ballots unlike in 2016,” said a prominent Democrat in the state with knowledge of the party’s turnout operation plans.

“The Democratic campaigns and the Democratic Party have been working continuously to communicate with, listen to and build relationships with Black voters and Black leaders throughout Wisconsin, including very much in Milwaukee and Madison, since the moment the polls closed in 2020,” said the prominent Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state party’s operations. “This is the moment, and Black voters can absolutely tip the balance in some of the most important races in the state.”

Many activists, however, warned that Democrats must not assume Black voters will turn out for Barnes simply because he is Black.

“Our community is not homogenous, we all just don’t unanimously agree on a candidate,” said Lang, whose group endorsed Barnes during the primary. “Representation is important, but we can’t have representation just for representation’s sake. He has to earn the votes,” she said. “But I’m confident he can, because he does offer so many ways for people in our community to identify with him other than his race.”

Johnson’s campaign and the state Republican Party, meanwhile, pointed to investments the state party made during the 2020 race in engaging the Black community, including opening its first field office in Milwaukee and promised that the Republican incumbent would be “aggressive” in efforts to win over Black voters.

“He is going to be out in the community and very engaged,” said Gerard Randall, a vice chair of the state GOP, referring to Johnson. 

Barnes said in an interview he was committed to earning every vote, and suggested the record he'd built with Evers that focused on "rebuilding the middle class" would resonate with Black voters. His campaign also pointed to a record, as lieutenant governor, of having "helped deliver historic investments in Black-owned small businesses."

“That’s actually something I’ve done when I wasn’t campaigning, maintain a very solid presence here, talking about the issues that matter,” Barnes said. 

That approach has won over voters like retiree Ressie Trotter from the church, who said she’s already taken notice of the outreach efforts Barnes and groups supporting him have made in her neighborhood. 

“I think he’s great,” said Trotter, who said she was certain to vote for Barnes. “He’s very talented and capable. He’s done a fine job as lieutenant governor, but it does feel like he isn’t taking anything for granted."