Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Board Using Transit To Provide Voting Access

More buses on election day to make sure all who want to vote can get to polling places.

By - Sep 28th, 2020 03:15 pm
MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

Despite localities having a couple pandemic elections under their belt already, local officials are still seeking more innovations to make voting access easier and safer for the general presidential election in November.

The Milwaukee County Board recently approved a small allocation, relative to the county’s annual budget, that officials hope will improve voting access and awareness.

Sup. Eddie Cullen proposed spending $28,000 to shore-up bus service on election day and a public information campaign explaining how to use the transit system to access polling places.

Early into the COVID-19 pandemic, the county lowered the passenger capacity on MCTS buses. Currently, only 15 people at a time can be aboard a bus, and operators are not permitted to stop and pick someone up until there are less than 15 passengers.

“If one person is disenfranchised because they’re forced to sit at a bus stop waiting for a ride down to vote, that’s one too many in my book,” Cullen said.

So $15,000 of the allocation will go towards paying extra bus operators, to cover and maintain “adequate” coverage of routes that will serve people going to polling locations.

Then, there’s the matter of informing the public. $10,000 will be spent on targeted social media advertising. These ads will direct residents to information about what routes will take them to their polling location. And on top of that, another $3,000 will be allocated for on-bus signage encouraging riders to vote.

“I don’t lightly tap into this contingency fund,” Cullen told the board last Thursday. “I really do think that this is an emergency.”

Cullen noted that surrounding counties have historically had higher voter participation rates that Milwaukee. And that the pandemic is only complicating voting access for many county residents.

Fall is, generally speaking, a high-ridership season for the transit system. “We could really be in a situation where an MCTS operator has to decide, ‘oh, do I let this 16th person on the bus to vote, and potentially create a COVID hotbed in my bus or do I disenfranchise this person’,” Cullen said.

In April, less than a month into the pandemic, Milwaukee saw its first pandemic election. Absentee voting turned out to be highly-unreliable for that election. And there were only five polling places in the entire City of Milwaukee because of a poll worker shortage. By the August primary election there were 168 polling places and early voting was expanded and some of the kinks were worked out of the absentee voting process.

But in August, the same number of people voted in-person as they did in April, even after witnessing the troubled April election. So, in November, even with a big lead-up encouraging early voting and absentee voting, it’s likely many will vote in person on election day.

Cullen’s resolution, which the board approved with only one dissenting vote — by Sup. Patti Logsdon — is intended to eliminate, or greatly reduce, transportation as a barrier to voting in November.

In light of the county’s mission to achieve racial equity, Cullen said he sees transportation on election day as an equity issue, “Because, I think people in Milwaukee, specifically people of color don’t have the same access to a litany of things that people who look like me and people who live in neighboring counties do.”

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2 thoughts on “MKE County: Board Using Transit To Provide Voting Access”

  1. The many early opportunities to vote before November 3, 2020 should also be emphasized. The League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County provide information about registration, early voting, absentee voting, and drop box locations at their Web site

    By acting now and using the many opportunities to vote early by mail, drop box, or in-person, the demand for transit to the polls on November 3, 2020 could be flattened.

  2. In fact, perhaps the best thing to help with voting access is to display VOTE.WI.GOV on the scrolling sign on top of every transit vehicle starting immediately.

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