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What's On The Minds Of Black Voters In Wisconsin?


Milwaukee was supposed to be in the spotlight this week, hosting the Democratic National Convention. But it is all virtual, with no big celebration to help rally Democrats in a key swing state. It's also a place where the party failed to achieve the turnout levels it needed in 2016, including among Black Democratic voters. Here's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Darius Smith organized the Black is Beautiful bicycle ride on Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee. He wasn't riding, though.

DARIUS SMITH: No, I'm not biking. I'll be on the back of the truck. I'm the - I'll be doing the calls. I'll be, you know, leading the chant.

KURTZLEBEN: Here, he patted a large megaphone he had slung over his shoulder. The ride is political. There were signs and political T-shirts and a voter registration table. But Smith explained that it was also designed to be celebratory during this summer of protests.

SMITH: We wanted to be able to have a break, and we wanted to have a day that we can just relax, get some good health.

KURTZLEBEN: Smith said he'll vote for Biden, but this very politically active young man - here, where the Democratic convention was supposed to happen in a crucial swing state - says he's not thinking much about the presidential election. He just has other worries.

SMITH: The voter suppression is real - COVID, mental health, all these sorts of different things that is on the forefront. As far as right now, the election has taken a back burner to me dealing with stuff I have to deal with and other people out here fighting, things going on in Portland, things going in Milwaukee.

KURTZLEBEN: Around 6% of Wisconsin's voting-age population is Black. In a state where Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, that represents far more voters than either party may need to make the difference.

Sitting under a tree next to her bike, Frederika Poe said this election feels different to her, and not in a good way.

FREDERIKA POE: Honestly, I - and this is dramatic, but I feel hopeless (laughter) in terms of - I don't have hope in any presidential candidate at this particular point, you know, to move the country forward.

KURTZLEBEN: She's not enthused about Biden and Harris. For example, she feels that Harris has a poor record on incarceration as California's attorney general. But Poe said they seem like her best choice.

POE: Not voting is not an option for me. And then voting for Trump is not an option - so kind of a back-is-against-the-wall, lesser-of-the-two-evils kind of thing.

KURTZLEBEN: Among these voters, there's some evidence of the generational divide that showed up in the Democratic primaries. Multiple younger voters at the ride said they aren't enthusiastic about Biden, though they will vote for him. But then there are voters like 69-year-old Yvonne Lumsden-Dill. She volunteers with the Menomonee Falls Action Team, a progressive activist group. At her suburban home, she tells about a breakfast this winter where she and her fellow volunteers were talking about their preferred candidates.

YVONNE LUMSDEN-DILL: And when it got around to me, I kind of looked at everybody, and I was a little embarrassed. And I said, I still like Joe. And this was back in February, so I can honestly say that I have been excited about him.

KURTZLEBEN: Excited or not, multiple voters said that they are thinking well beyond November, that voting for president is just one part of making change. Back at the Black is Beautiful ride, Jarrett English said he supported Bernie Sanders, but he explained why he'll definitely vote for Biden.

JARRETT ENGLISH: You know, I always like to make the analogy that we're walking in a house, and we're looking at the balcony. And we don't have any steps yet. And so if we want to get up there, the candidates we have - they're one step on that path. And it's far better alternative to burning the house down is what we're doing right now.

KURTZLEBEN: In a presidential election year, it can be hard to look past November. But when voters like English see crises everywhere, it's also hard for them not to.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.