Souls to the Polls has a big vision: energizing 100,000 Milwaukee residents to vote. To get there, the nonpartisan organization educates, registers, and transports voters to polling sites in Wisconsin, a battleground state with rising COVID-19 case numbers.
“I hope we can get at least 80 percent of the Black community out here to go vote,” Rev. Greg Lewis, assistant pastor at Saint Gabriel’s Church of God in Christ in Milwaukee and president and founder of Souls to the Polls, told Sojourners. And Lewis is hopeful. “If we had not done what we’ve done there would not be the kind of energy in this community that there is now; I’m positive of that.”
Building a voting bloc
Milwaukee, which is the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the U.S., has made headlines for being a place where Democratic candidates rarely visit, where voter suppression is rising, and where voter turnout is down. In 2016, Wisconsin saw its lowest presidential election voter turnout in 20 years, with Milwaukee County down 60,000 votes compared to the previous presidential election. In the same year, Black voter turnout in Wisconsin declined by nearly one-fifth.
The effort to turn out Milwaukee’s Black voters started in 2012 with the recall of then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. At the time, Bruce Colburn, a Milwaukee native and former bus driver, was working with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and saw firsthand that “African Americans have been a leading force in political change and a progressive future in Milwaukee and the state [of Wisconsin].”
Colburn met Lewis via SEIU and the pair discovered that they shared a vision. The two organized a meeting of over 300 pastors in Milwaukee and asked them to band together to energize their congregations and form a voting bloc. Sixty-four joined that day.
“I had one-on-one meetings with all 64 preachers, and I asked them, ‘Are you tired of being frustrated and powerless?’” Lewis said. “They all said ‘yes.’”
The group, coalescing under the name Pastors United, gained traction. Rather than promoting a specific candidate or even a single election, the group focused on building a committed voting bloc that would organize long-term on issues in their neighborhoods.
“We want to create a voter bloc so that we can focus on an agenda that the community has come up with, determined by the community itself,” Lewis said. “We can determine who’s mayor, county executive, county supervisors, district attorney, and we can put pressure on those elected officials to focus on education, housing, health care, economic development, and other issues in our community. We want to make decisions instead of being treated like trash in our society.”
“We want a seat at the table,” Lewis added. "If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. So far, we’ve just been on the menu.”
As Lewis met with over 500 faith leaders, the organization evolved into Souls to the Polls, a 501(c)(3) focused on cementing a voting bloc among Black voters in Milwaukee.
Mobilizing in a pandemic
Souls to the Polls hopes to not only make sure people are aware of elections, but to ensure that they are properly prepared to vote.
It’s all part of a long-term strategy. Over a year ago, Lewis, Colburn, and Anita Johnson, voter assistance specialists with Souls to the Polls, began planning to register voters in churches after Sunday services. They envisioned creating alliances with pastors who would walk people to early voting sites and talking to churchgoers one-on-one about the importance of civic engagement.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Their plan was foiled.
“We really had to change what we wanted to do and what we wanted to build,” Colburn said. “Our idea was that the church could become a center for change. All of a sudden, people weren’t going to church.”
Souls to the Polls switched gears. They ramped up phone canvassing and door knocking to replace what would have been in-person interactions at church. They invested in social media, print, and radio ads. They sent out emails and flyers. They put up banners on 100 churches and erected billboards across Milwaukee. They hosted Zoom gatherings to energize voters.
The pandemic hit close to home for the organization: Lewis contracted COVID-19 in March and was hospitalized. At the same time, the presidential primary election revealed blatant voter suppression tactics especially in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin has been a bedrock of going from a system that was pretty progressive to a system that at every turn would fight the rights of people to vote, especially Black communities and Latinos,” Colburn said. “Souls to the Polls became strong leaders in the area of fighting voter suppression.”
Souls to the Polls campaigned to increase the number of Milwaukee polling sites from eight to 16 — and won. Lewis became a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit to postpone Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary election (the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against the postponement). They held public Zoom events to raise awareness of the suppression.
And after recovering from COVID-19, Lewis returned to the work.
Souls to the Polls has since canvassed more than 3,400 homes and, thanks to their advocacy efforts on voting access, saved votes. In addition to their wide faith network, they’ve built partnerships with Milwaukee Area Technical College and Black Lives Matter. The approach is holistic, recognizing that education must be paired with access.
“Transportation is my issue.”
In late September, after realizing that organizations like Common Cause and Wisconsin Citizen Action had suspended their transport services to the polls due to the pandemic, Norma Balentine, who began working with Souls to the Polls on Sept. 28, started doing research. Although nine volunteers initially signed up to provide rides to the polls, Balentine determined that Lyft and Uber had more safety precautions in place to protect riders from COVID-19. Using a hotline number, voters can now request a ride to the polls, paid for by Souls to the Polls donations.
So far, 30 people have taken advantage of the ride service and another 30 have called for information on voting, according to Balentine.
One of them is J.M. Evans, a Milwaukee native who, after receiving a flyer from the group, called the hotline on the first day of early voting in Wisconsin.
“Oh boy, was that a godsend,” Evans said. “Transportation is my issue.”
Evans has worked the polls in the past, but she’s now a caretaker for her elderly mother and isn’t able to be out of the house for an extended period of time. The hotline allowed her to vote and return home within 30 minutes.
“You don’t know the load that took off of me,” Evans said. “It was immediate. I had wonderful drivers. It was exceptional and it was what the community needs.” In addition to obtaining rides, voters can call the hotline to vote curbside, drop off their absentee ballots at the dropbox, or get more info on voting and their registration.
Balentine now has 61 volunteers from Maine to Alaska covering the hotline and the program has sparked the interest of other cities.
“I’ve gotten calls from New York and Baltimore asking if there was a program like this there,” Balentine said. “I hope we’ve created a template that others can use and build on, that we might strengthen what we’ve done moving forward to build a greater capacity for voters.”
Souls to the Polls isn’t just rooting for a new narrative, it’s creating it. Whereas Lewis has personally provided rides to the polls in the past, he’s pleased that the demand this year has inflated beyond what he can manage alone.
“I think we’ve done a really good job of getting people energized,” Lewis said. “We’re lighting up Milwaukee with signs that you need to vote. We’re being aggressive.”