On April 7, the morning of the Wisconsin primary election, Jennifer Taff made a sign. She went to her front closet, emptied and ripped apart a box, and searched for a Sharpie. The one she found was dying, and she pressed down hard to make each letter show up: “This is ridiculous,” she wrote across the cardboard. The anger she felt at that moment probably helped her put some extra pressure on each letter.
Just the day before, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected Governor Tony Evers’s executive order to suspend in-person voting for the state and ordered that all absentee ballots be postmarked by April 7, instead of the previous deadline of April 13. In Milwaukee, where Taff lives, only five of 180 voting locations were open on election day. Taff, who works as a social worker in one of the poorest zip codes in the state, told Supermajority News that this polling location decrease meant that the families she works with would have had to vote at her polling place, which is not walking distance from their homes. Many of them don’t have cars, so this meant no voting.
Taff was furious. “Livid” was the word she used in an interview with Supermajority News last week, during which Taff also spoke about her first foray into activism, what she plans to do as the presidential election nears, and how the pandemic is highlighting her city’s financial disparity.
Supermajority: Before you decided to hold this sign, did you identify as an activist?
Jennifer Taff: As a social worker, yes. I talk about advocating a lot, advocating for the community, and social justice within urban Milwaukee. I had never actually called myself an activist until this. Now, I’m feeling emboldened to step into that title.
What have you learned about being a voter in your state?
In Milwaukee, it’s [normally] great. Easy access, plenty of polling stations. My polling station is right across the street from my house. I live just outside of the zipcode 53206, but this is where I work, and all my families live, and all my kids live. It’s a food desert, and 22 percent of kids [at the school where I work] are homeless, just to give you a feel for where we’re living.
What went through your mind when you found out that this election was still going to happen amid a pandemic, but you couldn’t send in an absentee ballot?
I was livid. In Wisconsin, they had postponed the deadline to even request an absentee ballot because there was such a demand for it. I had requested my ballot about two weeks before it was due [on April 13], and I had not received it. But I kind of understood; it’s a big mess right now. In the back of my head, I was like, ‘OK, it hasn’t come yet, but I still have time.’
[The state government] said if you had not received an absentee ballot, you could email the county clerk and print one off. I’m a minimalist. I don’t have internet. I don’t have cable. I have my iPhone—that’s about it. I was super angry because I was like, ‘I didn’t know I needed to have the internet to cast a ballot I had already requested.’
And then on April 6, the news came out that it was no longer an option to cast an absentee ballot after the seventh. Everything was so shady that nobody trusted that your ballot would get cast even if it were postmarked by the seventh.
[The Supreme Court was] playing politics with our lives, [so they should] bet we’re not going to vote to save [their seats] on the Supreme Court. I was shocked at how low they went to try to keep power. Wouldn’t it be in your best interest, even as a Republican, to keep people safe and have more people vote by mail? I was surprised that this is what they were forcing us to do because of their lack of humanity, but not surprised because they’ve been so shady.
How did you take action after learning this update?
After I found out on the news that the polls were opening, and that I didn’t have an option but to go and vote in person, I got back on social media (I’d been off it since Trump got elected). [The night before the election] I was [posting to help spread correct information]: ‘Call this person,’ ‘Here’s the email address [this representative].’
I [also] wanted to make a sign. The morning [of the election], I looked around my house and realized I didn’t have posterboard or anything like that. I looked in my front closet where I keep my bikes and such, pulled up an old moving box, emptied it. I had one Sharpie in the house that was dying. I’m, like, scratching into the cardboard to make the sign.
What were the responses from people in line with you and people who saw the sign?
When I got there, I walked to the back of the line, which went down the block around the corner and then down the other block with my sign out. The sign [got] a smile going, a conversation going, and lightened the mood a little bit. People driving by were honking, yelling out their cars. Some people pulled over and asked to take a picture.
I did have one lady be like, ‘Your sign’s ridiculous. It is what it is. Just get out and vote!’ She was wearing a sweatshirt that talked about your right to go and vote. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is kind of my way to say what I need to say, just like your sweatshirt is your way to say what you need to say.’ But everybody else was overwhelmingly pro the sign.
Most people in line behind you in the photo appear to be masked. Was the the norm on election day?
I would say that about 80 percent of the people had masks on already. I didn’t own a mask, so I just had my Buff. The polling peoplewent around with measuring tape and put tape down every six feet. They went around with iPads and clipboards, making sure before you got into the high school, you were at the right polling location, you were registered, so there was no milling around when you cast your vote. They were fantastic, and they were also handing out paper masks for those that didn’t have them. I feel like they worked really hard to keep us safe, and they were pissed that we were there, too.
The vast majority [of poll workers were elderly], and they’re also mostly people of color. In Milwaukee, the black community is getting hit so much harder [by the coronavirus]. The protective equipment that I saw at my polling station that the workers were wearing was very much patchwork. I saw poll workers wearing bathrobes because there were no covers or gowns to wear. I saw people wearing garbage bags. Some people had masks; some people had bandanas. All the masks were different kinds, so it was clear to me that they were necessarily provided a uniform for this time.
What are some of the issues that you particularly felt passionate about voting for?
There was a referendum to raise property tax to help fund Milwaukee public schools because we are so underfunded, understaffed. We have such a huge shortage of teachers with no incentive to keep the teachers we do have. Our kids are dealing with a lot of trauma, and they need that support: emotionally, psychologically, academically, physically.
The funding for our homeless shelters here in the city had been significantly cut under the whole Walker administration. Slumlords in the city are the real deal. Black mold, standing water in the basements that people refuse to fix, wrongful convictions because people are complaining too much, lead paint.
Some of these things weren’t on the ballot, but there were people on the ballot who could do something about [these problems]. The county exec was on the ballot. The Supreme Court seat was on the ballot. Our mayoral election was also on the ballot. I just feel like it’s so important because all of those topics can be brought to life through those officials.
Now that you identify as an activist, are you planning other things to do along the lines of activism, organizing, and getting involved in your community in any way?
Being a social worker, you can get so discouraged. We’re fighting the same fight every day, over and over. And it can be so discouraging. Is what I’m doing making a difference? Am I making any kind of impact?
On a very personal level, I’ve seen that my voice does matter. The choices I make do matter, even if it’s streaked with some element of civil disobedience—my voice matters. My vote matters and the choices people make matter. The people in line behind me in the photo: they chose to get out there. They chose to wear their masks; they chose their facial expression to show their frustration.
Patricia McKnight, who took the picture, was just there to vote, she wasn’t working. She wasn’t on assignment. She chose to stop and become involved with people and ask questions. She chose to take a picture. These kinds of things can add up, can change Milwaukee, can change the state, and can now potentially change how we do things in our nation. People say all the time, ‘Why would I vote? It doesn’t matter. Nothing ever matters.’ Yes, it does. This has been such an awakening for me that it does count. That’s been huge for me, and I hope it’s something that other people can take away as well.