Souls to the Polls: Report

Souls to the Polls (SttP) is an army of faith organizing a power bloc of voters to win this election in November 2020. We are a dynamic alliance of inner-city churches committed to bringing 100,000 souls to the polls in Milwaukee.

SttP started as a question raised during the 2012 Scott Walker recall campaign. Could a group of churches mobilize voters to make a difference in key elections? Walker won that recall thanks to the gerrymandered voting map. In 2016, Hilary Clinton ran a campaign for president with little input from Black or Latino involvement. Minority voters did not come out. Following that election, Rev. Greg Lewis and fellow ministers began organizing to test the power of inner-city churches on voter turnout. On July 12, 2018, over 120 religious leaders convened to launch Souls to the Polls- 2018 with a commitment to educate, register and transport community residents to voting sites for the critical Governor’s race.

During 2018, Souls to the Polls worked in their churches and neighborhoods. They boosted voter turn-out in Milwaukee’s central city. With this increase in Milwaukee votes, Governor Walker was finally removed from office.

In 2020, SttP ministers organized a massive voter campaign kick-off on February 17 at New Holy Tabernacle Church. More than 40 ministers, with hundreds of their congregation members and concerned citizens, rallied to prepare for the February 18 Primary election. The 2020 campaign moved forward. Churches agreed to set up voter registration kiosks. Women from the churches were trained to use donated I-pads and register voters. Events were being scheduled when COVID -19 struck. Across the city, people were being infected, including Rev. Greg Lewis, Souls to the Polls President, who was hospitalized in intensive care. Rev. Lewis returned to organizing as soon as he left the hospital still struggling to breathe. His courage bolstered the commitment of SttP church leaders to mobilize congregants for the election.

Overnight, everything changed. Churches were closed, large gatherings became dangerous and door-to-door outreach was off the table. Souls to the Polls redesigned our entire program to do outreach by phone or email, meet on Zoom and help people register to vote was on-line. We also had to expand our virtual program agenda to include helping people to request absentee ballots.

On top of this, the Republican-led state legislature amped up barriers to voting. They planned to purge the voter rolls of 200,000 names. Souls to the Polls worked with groups across the state to defeat that proposal. Republicans stopped the Governor from changing the April 7 election to an all-mail election using absentee ballots due to COVID. SttP and partners sued. Court hearings were held at the State Supreme Court which ruled in favor of Republican legislators. As a last-ditch effort to protect voters, Governor Evers tried to delay the election. Republicans said no and this case went to the US Supreme Court. SttP filed an Amicus Brief. The US Court also supported Republican legislators. On April 7 hundreds of thousands of people voted in person, waiting for hours in long lines, in the rain and unprotected from COVID. The only victory for Wisconsin residents was an SttP proposal to delay the deadline for absentee ballots. Thanks to this win, over 113,000 extra votes were counted.
Souls to the Polls is now organizing on several fronts:

  • Voter registration and mobilization: Church member canvassers are doing outreach by phone, helping church members register to vote, if necessary, and request applications for absentee ballots.
  • Voter outreach and education: Rev. Lewis and other ministers have been speaking on religious and community radio stations to keep people updated on the changes in election rules, absentee ballots and attempts to suppress the Black vote. SttP has developed a social media campaign using Facebook, our website and email to reach congregation members and area residents. We have created a database system to keep in touch with congregants and neighborhood families to maintain enthusiasm for voting this year.
  • Voter Protection: Souls to the Polls has been a leading partner in statewide legal fights to protect voters.
    • We were able to delay the voter purge in April but it is returning this summer.
    • We fought to delay the election in April. That lawsuit was defeated but the Court agreed to extend time for accepting absentee ballots which meant over 113,000 extra votes were counted. State and federal supreme court
    • We have led the fight in Milwaukee to make sure the voting apparatus is effective. We have won efforts to expand the number of voting sites, increase the length of time approved for early voting, and secured agreements to make absentee voting easier by providing voter assistance and ballot drop off sites in all 16 precincts, at local libraries. Record number of early vote sites. Challenging attempts to cut resources

We have been actively organizing to publicize major issues. In April, we organized an in-car protest over the voting conditions on April 7 and the conservative efforts to defy the Governor and open business in the state before COVID was under control.

On June 13, Souls to the Polls worked with SOUL of Solomon Missionary Church and the League of Progressive Seniors to hold an outdoor sit-in in support of Black Lives Matter. Organizers and speakers called on people in the community to make their voice heard at the ballot box as well as on the streets.

On May 25, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. The explosion of grief and rage sent hundreds of thousands of people into the streets across the United States and countries around the world. In Milwaukee, a young man, Frank Sensabaugh, commonly known as Frank Nitty, emerged as a powerful leader of Black Lives Matter. Frank has led many hundreds of diverse people on long marches through neighborhoods and suburban communities where no march has gone before. The marches started on May 28th and have continued every day since then. Frank has joined with Souls to the Polls to channel this extraordinary energy into a campaign for Black Votes as a first step in making change happen. He has partnered with Rev. Greg Lewis, a long-time and highly regarded leader in Milwaukee’s inner-city community. He is President of Pastors United, the first interdenominational organization of Black ministers in Milwaukee. He then established Souls to the Polls to mobilize church congregations to build power for the Black community through the ballot box.

Their partnership marks a watershed in the struggle to achieve justice in Milwaukee, known as one of the worst cities to live for African American people. Their partnership has ignited new hope and excitement about winning in November.