Fiserv Forum
Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

A GOP lawsuit and a conservative state Supreme Court could lead to ballots being challenged, thrown out.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ Fiserv Forum and Brewers’ Miller Park will no longer serve as early voting sites “due to legal challenge concerns,” the Milwaukee Elections Commission announced Tuesday, a significant setback for the efforts to make voting more convenient which were initiated with the help of some of Wisconsin’s premier athletes.

The cancellation comes after Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt last week issued a thinly veiled threat against early voting events at the sports venues, saying they could be illegal. However, Hitt gave no similar warning to elections officials in Green Bay, where Republicans are hoping to win an open State Senate seat. Green Bay will have voting at the Packers’ Lambeau Field on Election Day.

“Unfortunately, the addition of these two sites could be legally challenged due to a recent court ruling, and we don’t want to do anything that could risk a City of Milwaukee voter’s ballot being counted,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Elections Commission, in a statement.

To some, the Republican effort against early voting at Milwaukee’s sports venues appears to be an act of voter suppression against people of color akin to President Donald Trump’s effort to deter Black people from voting in 2016 and the state’s restrictive voter ID law. 

“Are Republicans going to threaten legal action against plans to vote at Lambeau Field?” pondered independent columnist Dan Shafer in a tweet. “Or are they only going to do that for the stadiums in the county where 70% of the state’s Black residents live?”

The City of Milwaukee is a majority-people of color city. About 39% of the city’s roughly 600,000 residents are Black, and 19% are Latino, according to US Census Bureau estimates. Green Bay, on the other hand, is about 70% white. About 70% of Wisconsin’s Black population lives in Milwaukee County, according to the Department of Health Services.

“[P]arts of Lambeau Field will be a polling place in November. Why no mention of the Packers?” tweeted Martenzie Johnson, associate editor of ESPN’s The Undefeated. “Oh, because Milwaukee has the black people.”

Hitt argued it would be illegal for any Brewers or Bucks players or mascots to show up at early voting events because state law prohibits “any activity which is intended to influence voting at an election.” However, the Brewers told the Associated Press no mascots or players would be present at the early voting event at Miller Park; the Bucks did not provide comment to the AP.

Alex Lasry, a Bucks senior vice president, tweeted a statement on Tuesday following the cancellation.

“This is obviously disappointing BUT we don’t want the potential for any votes to be illegitimate. It’s become increasingly harder for people, especially, communities of color, to find safe and accessible places to vote and we were excited for [Fiserv Forum] to provide that space,” Lasry wrote.

“It’s clear one side wants to make it harder to vote while the other wants it easier and more accessible,” Lasry added in a subsequent tweet.

On Aug. 26, in the wake of the Jacob Blake police shooting in Kenosha, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to leave the locker room for a playoff game, a strike that shut down the entire league and sparked conversations about how athletes could call attention to systemic racism and encourage civic participation. Five days later, the team announced its arena would be made available as an early voting site.

The warning against early voting at Fiserv Forum and Miller Park wasn’t Wisconsin Republicans’ first attempt at deterring voters and making voting harder in Democratic strongholds like Milwaukee or Madison. In April, Republican leaders forced the spring primary election to occur in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to just five polling sites being open in Milwaukee compared to the typical 182. 

Last week, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) sent a cease-and-desist letter to Madison’s city clerk because she planned to hold an absentee ballot collection event in a city park. The city forged ahead and collected more than 10,000 ballots, despite Vos and Fitzgerald’s accusations that the event constituted illegal early voting and ballot harvesting.

Black voters in Milwaukee have become a focal point for the 2020 presidential election after voter turnout in the community dropped 19% between 2012 and 2016, contributing to a narrow victory of fewer than 23,000 votes for Trump. Some of that dropoff has been attributed to the way Trump’s campaign used harvested data to micro-target ads on social media to deter millions of Black voters around the country; others point to Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law that disproportionately prevented people of color from voting.

For more coverage designed to help you cast a ballot this fall, see our special page on the election: Your Vote Matters