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Milwaukee Organization Urged Black Voters To Hit The Polls

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Wisconsin has been a swing state on and off for more than a century. Democrats sort of imagined it was theirs in recent years until President Trump won by less than 1 percentage point in 2016. It'll be close this year, too. One group hopes to recover Wisconsin for the Democrats by increasing turnout in Milwaukee's majority-Black North Side. Noel King has the story.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: When Angela Lang needs motivation, she looks at a giant, bright-green Post-it stuck near her laptop where she's written the number.

Do you remember how many votes President Trump won Wisconsin by?

ANGELA LANG: Twenty-two thousand seven hundred and forty-eight (laughter).

KING: Twenty-two thousand seven hundred and forty-eight - so not a lot. President Obama won the state twice. And when President Trump won, Democrats asked, what happened? People dug into the numbers, and some part of it was this. Black voters in Milwaukee, usually reliable Democrats - their turnout had dropped in 2016 by about a fifth in some city districts. And so...

LANG: We were to blame, and we're at fault for it.

KING: Angela remembers this article in The New York Times where the reporter interviewed some Black men in a Milwaukee barbershop. They had not voted. They had no regrets.

LANG: Shortly after that article was published is really when I heard a lot of progressive folks, Democratic folks, a lot of white progressives that were blaming our community for the outcome of what happened.

KING: This really upset her. Wisconsin is an overwhelmingly white state. In 2016, around 1.4 million eligible voters there just didn't vote. It felt to her like Black people in Milwaukee were being scapegoated. Oh, if they'd done their civic duty - that kind of thing. To her mind, people hadn't done their civic duty because what had their civic duty done for them?

There's another number Angela thinks about a lot.

LANG: 53206.

KING: It's a ZIP code.

LANG: You know, pretty much ground zero for Black folks.

KING: In 53206, economists do studies, and filmmakers do documentaries. If you're not from North Milwaukee, here's what you'll see.

LANG: You're going to see, you know, boarded-up houses. You're going to see the broken glass. You may see bullet holes in churches or in corner stores.

KING: But if you are from Milwaukee, like she is, you see a community, too.

LANG: And as much tragedy and trauma that we're all dealing with, everyone's finding a way to make it work, which I think is incredibly beautiful.

KING: Beautiful - but also, she figured, there had to be 22,700 or so people who she could convince to vote this time. Angela founded a nonprofit - Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC - in 2017. She and her co-workers knocked on a lot of doors in Milwaukee, explained how to register to vote, told people who'd lost their right to vote because of felony convictions, hey, your rights have been restored. They held events like Civics "Jeopardy!"

LANG: You know, Black history, important dates in voting, the legislative branch, different categories like that that we constantly quiz ourselves on.

KING: Now, if your response to this energetic millennial activist is mild cynicism, well, I'm not going to judge you. Here is one of BLOC's employees.

AMARI RUCKER: I'm, like, 5-foot-1, and I look very young. I still look like I'm 16, 17.

KING: That's Amari Rucker (ph), and she's 22, actually.

Can I hear the pitch?

RUCKER: So I will start off - it would ring, and (laughter) I'll be like, hello. May I speak to Ms. King?

KING: Yes, this is she.

RUCKER: So the reason why we're calling folks today is because we're letting folks know about the November election and that you can still request for an absentee ballot...

KING: You talk to Amari, and you think she's probably one of those civically minded young people like Angela out there doing the most, probably since she could talk. There, you would be wrong. In 2016, Amari, who'd just finished high school, didn't even know who'd been elected president.

RUCKER: I thought it was Obama still. I never knew Obama got kicked out. I was lost.

KING: And when she heard it was Donald Trump...

RUCKER: I'm, like, whoa. We're there. OK, so who is he? And then people started telling me about him. I'm like, whoa. No, that's not it (laughter). So I was just so lost. I was lost.

KING: She might have stayed lost. She finished high school and had a daughter. She got a job in a cafe, which she realized was a dead end professionally. And then, one day, her daughter's dad's mom came home talking about work, and she was really happy.

RUCKER: And I'm, like, where is this? And she said, BLOC, my job. I'm, like, I didn't even know she worked. I'm, like, woah, you got a new job? OK, I see you. And then she was telling me how she was moving up and moving up. I'm, like, oh, this is one of those type of jobs where you learn. You move up. You learn some more, and you move up, up. Like, I'm, like, oh, this is a good job for me.

KING: It is a good job for her. Those voters whose doors she knocked on, then cold-called once the pandemic started - a lot of them were skeptical. She wore them down, though. Now they call her when they have questions about voting.

Keith Johnson (ph) is 20, and he's one of the skeptics. Keith works as the assistant manager at a Dollar Tree.

Do you like it?

KEITH JOHNSON: I like the pay (laughter).

KING: He's never voted. He probably wouldn't have this year, either. He'd seen some theories on the Internet, which he openly admits is...

JOHNSON: Probably not the best source of information all the time.

KING: Stuff like, someone might take your ballot and change the name of the person you voted for - stuff that, if you've never voted, you might believe. But a few months ago, his mom's friend Khiva (ph) FaceTimed him. She works for BLOC.

JOHNSON: She was, like, hey, hey, how you doing? Yeah. You trying to vote? Yeah. OK, I can vote. Yeah. How do I do that? You know, this little website - so people are able to send mail to me in my house, so I can vote instead of just, like, going out and doing it.

KING: The logistics of voting - the how to do it - she explained it. And as for the why, Khiva didn't promise him anything. She just said, you know, for a long time, Black people couldn't vote.

JOHNSON: I'm probably voting for someone who couldn't do it back then, and it's just, like, making it up for them or just, like, helping out my people.

KING: BLOC doesn't endorse any particular party. They endorse candidates. Angela Lang says they want people to make up their own minds. To this point, BLOC has only endorsed Democrats, though.

Keith is voting for Joe Biden. He doesn't like President Trump's - well, here's how he put it.

JOHNSON: Ever since Trump became president, more of this racial stuff has been popping out more than ever.

KING: And there's something else, too. He's heard stories about the president's finances. He's heard the president isn't paying taxes. Keith always looks around at the roads in Milwaukee. They're cracked, and they're bumpy. There are potholes everywhere. He would like a president who pays his taxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE JAMES SONG, "I NEED YOUR LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.