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A large turnout of Black voters in Milwaukee could help Democrats' cause

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Wisconsin, many voters are having to change the way they vote this election because of changes that the state has made to the voting process since 2020. One of them was banning ballot drop boxes. A grassroots organization in Milwaukee is working to ensure that voters, especially Black voters, continue to make their voices heard despite the new rules. Here's NPR's H.J. Mai.

H J MAI, BYLINE: A group of about half a dozen young Black men and women wearing bright yellow safety vests are out canvassing in the Saint Joseph's neighborhood on Milwaukee's north side.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MAI: They're knocking on doors and leaving leaflets urging people to vote in this predominantly Black neighborhood.

DONYAE ROBINSON: A lot of people mention, like, jobs a lot. Like, they wish more jobs was in our community. And, you know, crime - they wish crime was down. Schools - they want better education in the schools. They just wish more, like, money was put in our community than there is now.

MAI: Donyae Robinson is a 24-year-old field ambassador for the nonprofit BLOC, which stands for Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. For him, authentic engagement is key to turnout.

ROBINSON: Before I joined this organization, I didn't know a thing about politics. I didn't know our entire, you know, living condition was based on politics. I started actually doing the work myself and seeing it. This is what matters.

MAI: Robinson has been canvassing neighborhoods like this one for weeks. The group was founded in 2017 in direct response to the election of former President Donald Trump. With tight races expected at this election, Democrats sent former President Barack Obama to Milwaukee late last month to drum up support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Look, whatever the reasons, when gas prices go up, when grocery prices go up, that takes a bite out of people's paychecks. That hurts. But the question you should be asking is who's actually going to do something about it? The Republicans are having a field day running ads talking about it, but what is their actual solution to it?

MAI: While inflation is a top issue for many voters, Democrats in Wisconsin want to point to other things at stake, like a Republican supermajority in the state legislature. BLOC's co-founder and executive director Angela Lang says in this election, voters need to pay attention to the candidates up and down the entire ballot.

ANGELA LANG: People understand that that really impacts day to day, sometimes more than a governor or a president or a U.S. senator. You feel that impact right away.

MAI: Republicans are trying to flip a handful of seats to gain two-thirds majorities in the state Senate and state Assembly. If that happens, the GOP will have the votes needed to override vetoes by the governor. Current Democratic Governor Tony Evers is in a tight contest with Republican Tim Michels. Lang says Evers serves as the last line of defense against extreme Republican policies.

LANG: Wisconsin has this archaic abortion ban on the books. If we're able to flip it away from a conservative majority, are we able to have another shot of getting that removed? Are we able to have another shot at things like fair maps? To be able to switch the ideology and get rid of and maybe undo some of these harmful decisions is important.

MAI: This year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court chose a legislative redistricting plan drawn up by GOP state lawmakers. This decision gave the party's candidates for the legislature an even bigger advantage over the next decade. Despite that, Democrats are still hoping for a large turnout among Milwaukee's Black voters. And Lang thinks with Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, the party has the right man to get voters excited.

LANG: We understand that not every Black person is for us. But Mandela has been in the community. To have someone that is so down to earth, that is a product of Milwaukee running for this, like, really high office I think means a lot to people.

MAI: Barnes is in a close contest with Republican incumbent Ron Johnson. Should he defeat Johnson, Barnes would become the state's first Black U.S. senator. No matter Tuesday's outcome, Lang says BLOC's work to engage Black voters will continue.

H.J. Mai, NPR News, Milwaukee, Wis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.