My experience with voter suppression

Dear Editor:
My name is Tequila Burris. I am a student studying Human Services at the MATC downtown campus. The 2018 Midterm election was the first time I got involved in electoral politics. Now that it is over, I wanted to reflect on my experience. It was enlightening and liberating, but not without challenges; challenges that I could only see to be the expression of voter suppression by the college’s administration.
My experience began when an instructor at the campus came in to inform my class that MATC Downtown campus had become an early voting site for the first year ever (the biggest kudos to all parties on making this happen). For years Milwaukee had only one early voting site – the Zeidler building where voters endured long lines and waits that often discouraged people from casting their votes and having their voices heard. On the bigger scheme of things most younger voters do not have full knowledge on why they are voting or the importance of doing so. In being named an early voting site MATC was given a great opportunity to educate its students on the importance of voter participation and to empower them to exercise their right to vote.
The election was just shy of a month away when many of us first heard about it. This was my first red flag. Given the importance of voter participation in elections and the low rates of voter participation among young people, I found it odd that it was the first time the students were hearing about it. I recall asking many questions. One of those questions was about the short notice.
A few weeks later just as early voting was set to begin on campus I noticed a table in the hall on the third floor of the M-building. This table was sponsored by a student organization – the League of Student Voters. The League put together an informed, nonpartisan table on the importance of voting. Days later I returned to the table with a classmate only to find it was gone. I looked from floor to floor in the M-building. It was nowhere to be found. Later, I was informed that the table was taken down by Student Life because the League had not gone through the proper channels to have a table.
This frustrated me because I could not understand why the college administration would use an arbitrary and bureaucratic rule to deny students access to important, non-partisan voting information when it had just become an early voting site. The college should have encouraged and promoted information about early voting and voter ID, not suppress it. They should have invited groups like the League of Women Voters to campus. Instead they did nothing but shut the table down. This is why I say that the administration engaged in voter suppression.
In spite of this, I channeled my inner activism and began informing all the students I came across about early voting, registration rules and voter ID requirements. Each day between classes I passed out sample ballots and printouts with the polling sites location and hours of operation and information to online sites with nonpartisan information on the candidates.
I found this really easy to do because I am outgoing and relatable. I actually looked forward to engaging with the students daily. But my efforts were called into question when the Director of the Student Life Mr. Burrows wanted to know if I was part of a student organization and if I was sanctioned to encourage students to vote through a department on campus. I informed the director that I was a current student volunteering my time to spread the word on early voting on campus. I was told that because I was not a part of any of the student organizations that I was not allowed to proceed with my voter education efforts. I assured Mr. Burrows that I had the right both as a citizen and an MATC student to do so. I then asked Director Burrows, what was the campus doing to bring attention to the early polling site? I got no clear response to this question.
The next day after the encounter with the Office of Student Life and on other days I was repeatedly harassed by campus security for distributing my literature. Each time I asked why I was not allowed to promote early voting among my fellow students? I never got a straight answer. So, I continued to exercise my rights.
After the fifth occurrence, I sought out two of the campuses student organizations – student government and Black Student Union (BSU) to ask why neither of the groups were participating in promoting voter awareness. Neither group was shy about saying that they felt that Office of Student Life had tied their hands with arbitrary barriers. I was disappointed and outraged. These are student organizations by the students for the students. And voices, like mine, were being silenced.
The difference was I wasn’t going to stand for it.
I was determined to continue my voter outreach on campus and off. I did so by volunteering with a number of organizations in the community – Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality organization (MASH), Souls to the Polls and labor unions – doing door to door canvassing or nonpartisan voter education. I was learning, as I taught. Along the way I was interviewed by Channel Four news, did radio interviews, met with Senator Bernie Sanders and Lt. Governor-elect Mandela Barnes. It was an empowering experience despite the MATC administration’s efforts.
My hope is that MATC administration will learn from the experience. MATC should continue to be an early voting site and the MATC administration should actively encourage its students to participate in future elections rather than hindering us.

-Tequila Burris