Online voter registration and organization will be more important in 2020 than ever before
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From conventions to online visits, state Democrats’ chair sees new methods are necessary to win while staying safe.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the already growing field of internet-based political organizing and skyrocketed the public’s interest in absentee voting, two strategic areas the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin said his party was already growing prior to the outbreak.

Ben Wikler said early planning and volunteer enthusiasm helped elect progressives in April, including Supreme Court candidate Jill Karofsky, and that same early planning and energy will help increase voter turnout from urban communities of color, where many voters stayed home in 2016, to the rural districts where Donald Trump had his biggest success in his upset victory.

Wikler made his comments on the UpNorthNews weekly “Unwind” program where he also talked about the party’s recent virtual convention, the party’s commitment to Milwaukee for a national convention in August, and how Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ recent racist comments falsely blaming an immigrant “culture” for the spread of COVID-19 demonstrates the GOP’s lack of concern for all essential workers.

While officially non-partisan, the state Supreme Court contest, where Karofsky notched a strong win against conservative incumbent Dan Kelly, received no shortage of resources and volunteers from both parties who treated the spring general election –with its public health risks and last-minute courtroom drama– as a rehearsal for November.

“We had a statewide race against the Republican machine,” Wikler said. “And Trump personally leaned into the fight, tweeting, pushing his volunteers to get involved. And we trounced him. It is testimony to the work of thousands and thousands of people, also to the refusal of voters to have their vote suppressed.”

Wikler said conservatives including President Trump are relying on a strategy of division and blame that works for them often but not always.

“The Republican playbook for the last decade has been ‘divide and conquer,’” Wikler said. “Try to divide Wisconsinites by race and try to find an ‘other’ so that an overwhelming white Republican electorate sees their problems as stemming from ‘them,’ and for the Republicans to position themselves as the party that is tougher on ‘them’ or causing the problem.”

Democrats in Wisconsin decided early in the outbreak to trade door knocking for online organizing. It has meant more organized text messaging to potential voters, more social media posts and conversations, and more promotion of online registration and early absentee voting.

“This is really new for us. We’ve never had a summer-long absentee voter sign-up drive. By doing that work now, we actually shrink the number of people who we’ll need to remind to vote in person if it’s safe to do so in November. And so there’s outsized returns to virtual early organizing in this moment, and we’re taking full advantage of that.”

One key lesson Wikler said they have learned about cutting through the loud and impersonal blare of political messaging is to put a higher value on relational campaigning, urging people to have more and deeper conversations with their own friends and family, as opposed to knocking on a mass quantity of strangers’ doors. Wikler said local party members making local phone calls to community members leads to conversations that are “longer and more textured” than basic “reminder” phone calls about upcoming elections. And those conversations, he said, take on even greater significance as more people vote earlier, by absentee ballot, from home.

“We don’t want to put anyone’s health at risk,” he said. “We want to make sure we are doing what is best for our state from a public health perspective and from democracy’s perspective.”

While much attention has been placed on African American and Latinx voters in Milwaukee, Wikler said his party is mindful that about half of the voter swing from President Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016 came in rural areas and other communities of fewer than 1,000 residents, and a lack of Democratic presence will not happen this year.

“We are massively increasing the amount of work we do in rural Wisconsin,” he said.

In communities of color, Wikler said Democrats were getting criticized for only showing up whenever it was time to ask for a vote. He said over the past year, DPW has trained more than two dozen volunteer leaders, many from communities of color, who then activated hundreds of volunteers who knocked on 20,000 doors in Milwaukee.

“We are constantly in touch with community leaders and grassroots organizations in African American and Latinx communities. Our core commitment is standing with (them) and fighting year round on their issues.”

“If you want a friend, be a friend,” Wikler said.

The Madison native who has been party chair for just over a year said one of the strong points his party and candidates will make due to the pandemic is that Democrats realize that ongoing structural inequalities in health care have led to a higher incidence of pre-existing conditions. And that, he said, is what makes coronavirus far more deadly for those who cannot afford to stay home from work and are not getting health care coverage.

Looking to the party’s mid-summer showcase in Milwaukee, Wikler said every conversation he has had with people connected to the Biden campaign or planning the rescheduled Democratic National Convention reaffirms their intense focus on a Wisconsin presence for the convention and beyond. 

He said the final decisions on what will be done in the Fiserv Forum and what will be made a more virtual event will be based on constant conversations the convention team is having with health experts. Wikler said the convention will be unlike anything ever seen because of a necessary convergence of safety and innovation. But one thing he predicts will not change is an appearance by presumptive nominee Joe Biden.

“If heaven and earth need to be moved to make sure that the vice president comes to our state,” he said, “it will be.”