The Current

Registering to vote like trying to 'count the bubbles in the soap' in some U.S. states: activist

Pastor Greg Lewis, of voting rights organization Souls to the Polls, says process of registering to vote is complicated and not welcoming for many people — and as a result their voices are not heard.

Voter suppression so 'extreme' it's 'frightening' for some people trying to register, says pastor

Pastor Greg Lewis, of voting rights organization Souls to the Polls, says the process of registering to vote is complicated and not welcoming for many people — and as a result their voices are not heard. (Alex Panetta/CBC)

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This story is part of The Current's series Road to November, a virtual trip down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans, to meet some of the people whose lives will be shaped by the 2020 U.S. presidential election.


A Wisconsin pastor who helps people to register and cast their ballots says there is "extreme" voter suppression in his state.

"It ought to be simple to vote," said Pastor Greg Lewis, one of the executive directors of Souls to the Polls, a non-profit, faith-based voting rights organization in Milwaukee.

"I ought to be able to go to McDonald's and get a Big Mac and [say]: 'Give me a ballot over there,' fill that ballot out, drop it in the box and somebody pick it up later on," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"But instead, it's a process that is not welcoming. And it's frightening for some folks because it becomes so difficult."

Souls to the Polls is a non-profit voting rights organization in Milwaukee. With just weeks to the U.S. presidential election, the group is working hard to get would-be voters registered to cast their ballots. (Teran R. Powell)

To register in Wisconsin, voters must fill out a form (whether online before Oct. 14, at a clerk's office before Oct. 30, or on Election Day on Nov. 3), and provide a valid form of state identification (e.g. a driver's licence or Wisconsin ID issued by the Department of Transport). 

To obtain that ID, the department website says voters must provide: 

  • Proof of name and date of birth, e.g. a certified U.S. birth certificate, valid passport or certificate of naturalization
  • Proof of identity, bearing the voter's photograph and signature, e.g. a social security card
  • Proof of Wisconsin residency, e.g. a utility bill with current address
  • Proof of citizenship or resident status, e.g. a U.S. birth certificate, citizenship or permanent residence paperwork
  • Social security number

If a voter does not have all that documentation, the website suggests visiting a Department of Motor Vehicles office with whatever paperwork is available.

"Some of our older folks in my community, they weren't born in a hospital — so where do they get the birth certificate?" asked Lewis.

"It's almost like they ask you to count the bubbles in the soap, or count this bubble gum in the jar … those are the kind of things that are really suppressive when it comes to trying to vote."

Lewis speaks at a recent rally. (Submitted by Greg Lewis)

To vote in a Canadian federal election, voters must register online, by mail or in-person. They can register using a driver's licence or provincial or territorial ID card. If neither is available, voters can register with any two from a list of more than 30 pieces of ID, as long as one bears their current address. Canadians can also register to vote by filling in a section on their annual tax return.

Supporters of ID requirements argue they're designed to prevent voter fraud, but studies have found impersonation fraud does not occur on a scale large enough to be consequential.

Lewis described those concerns as "making up facts to tailor your argument."

"Some folks just believe that the less people who vote, the more chance they have of being in control," he said.

On its website, Souls to the Polls is critical of "the Republican-led state legislature ... creating new barriers to voting," but it does not endorse any individual candidate.

Helping a homeless veteran vote

Anita Johnson is a voter ID coalition coordinator for VoteRiders, a group helping people in Wisconsin register to vote. (She also works with Souls to the Polls).

In her five years with the group, Johnson has realized that many people don't have time to prioritize voting paperwork, and she's now passionate about making sure they "know their rights when they went to the polls."

Anita Johnson at a Souls to the Polls event, where she helped people get registered to vote, and gave 'Future Voter' stickers to young children. (Teran R. Powell)

Before the 2016 presidential election, Johnson said she helped a homeless veteran get the state ID he needed to register. He was having trouble because his name had been spelled incorrectly on his birth certificate, and he now had limited documents to prove his identity.

After months of trying, Johnson was able to secure his ID, and get him registered to vote — but she wanted to make sure he voted, so she went with him the day of the election.

By then, the man had found somewhere to live, and that meant the address on his ID was out of date. 

In Wisconsin, you cannot register unless you have been resident at your address for 28 days, and don't currently intend to move. That address must then match the address on the ID you must present at the polling station on election day, unless you have additional paperwork confirming your address.

"They were like, you can't vote because you don't have proof of residence change," she said.

"We went back to this house, got the information, came back and he was able to vote that day." 

Anita Johnson at a Souls to the Polls event, where she provided people with the information they need to get registered to vote. (Teran R. Powell)

'Historically disenfranchised' now face pandemic

While the process and rules around voting have always differed from state to state, the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the U.S., was an attempt to introduce federal oversight that would curb attempts by some states to limit the voting rights of Black people and other minorities.

In 2013, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that rolled back part of the act, removing that federal protection against discrimination.

"We really have to think about the racist history here of voter suppression," said Molly McGrath, with the ACLU Voting Rights Project.

She pointed out that 80 per cent of Wisconsin's Black population live in Milwaukee, but at the April primaries, the expected 180 polling stations were reduced to just five, resulting in hours-long waits in line-ups.

The reduction was in part due to poll workers choosing to stay home over fears of contracting COVID-19. According to local reports, days before the election, the state was short 7,000 poll workers, and Milwaukee had only 400 of its usual 1,400

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, had issued an executive order to postpone the election, but within hours the state Supreme Court sided with Republicans who said Evers didn't have the authority to reschedule the race on his own.

CBC News Network's Michael Serapio spoke to Cliff Albright (Co-Founder, Black Voters Matter) to get his thoughts on the U.S Midterm elections and voter suppression. 5:05

The Wisconsin Elections Commission ordered a review of problems in April, and issued a 126-report on Sept. 1. In the report, the commission said it will have nearly 2,500 polling places statewide in November, requiring more than 30,000 poll workers, but acknowledged there is "an ongoing need for additional poll workers." It stipulated that poll workers be given adequate PPE, and increased pay may be offered at the discretion of a polling station clerk — the city of Madison is increasing pay 60 per cent to $21.79 US an hour.

McGrath said she's pleased to see "election administrators step up," but added the Black community in Wisconsin is "historically disenfranchised," and now facing "twofold" problems in 2020.

"We have voter suppression as it exists in this country, you know, that is targeted and that is nefarious," she said.

"And then we have, you know, voting in a pandemic and the learning curve that exists there." 

Several states have loosened the requirements to vote by mail in light of the pandemic, but Republican nominee Donald Trump has frequently claimed that the practice is unsafe and vulnerable to fraud.

McGrath said "we all agree that our elections should be secure, they should be accessible to voters and that the right to vote is so sacred."

But she said mail-in voting is not new, with U.S. citizens living abroad and military personnel voting by mail for years. She added that some states, such as Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Oregon, primarily run their elections by mail.

"We're not reinventing the wheel here on vote-by-mail. It's a tried and true system."

Lewis, who was seriously ill with COVID-19 earlier this year, thinks opposition to mail-in ballots is another form of suppression.

"I understand the damage that COVID-19 can do to a person, and they ask people to go out to vote instead of making it easy for someone to just get an absentee ballot and mail it in."

'Democrats need to stop taking Black vote for granted'

As of Thursday afternoon, Wisconsin is described as a "likely" win for the Democrats by the CBC Presidential Poll Tracker, with Democrat nominee Joe Biden polling at 52.1 per cent of voter support in Wisconsin, compared to Republican nominee Donald Trump's 45 per cent. In 2016, Trump won the state's 10 electoral college votes with 47.2 per cent of the vote, compared to Hillary Clinton's 46.5 per cent.

Biden visited the state on Sept. 3, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, while Trump is due to hold a rally in Wisconsin Thursday night, in the city of Mosinee.

The threat of COVID-19 didn’t stop people from getting out to vote in local elections and primaries in Wisconsin. 2:01

But Lewis said he's not seeing election signs for Biden in his community, whereas he is seeing election signs for Trump on its outskirts.

He said "the Democrats need to stop taking the Black vote for granted and start putting resources in our community."

"They must get out here and excite these people about getting out to vote," he told Galloway.

"It's like these people don't know how to fight — the GOP, they fight very hard, but I don't think the Democrats fight back."

Lewis said he's trying to energize potential voters in his community, "by letting them know that their vote counts, by letting them know that they have power."

"This is a great opportunity for us to bring all our resources together, to build up a voting bloc and make sure that we have leverage for an agenda that could change our community," he said.

"We have to stop letting things happen to us, and we have to start making things happen for us."


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from the Associated Press. Produced by Ben Jamieson, with thanks to Teran R. Powell for additional audio collection.

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