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Milwaukee residents begin voting in historic mayoral election

Seven candidates vie to replace Tom Barrett after his nearly 20 years in office

Tracy Wheeler puts on her ‘I Voted’ sticker Tuesday after voting at Midtown Center in Milwaukee
Tracy Wheeler puts on her ‘I Voted’ sticker Tuesday after voting at Midtown Center in Milwaukee. Wheeler said she always votes early to make sure her rights are not taken away. Corri Hess/WPR

Jerry Blalock and his grandson Marlon Mcelroy posed for a photo outside the Midtown Center shopping mall in Milwaukee after participating in the first day of early voting Tuesday.

Blalock wanted to make sure people know how important this race is for the city. It’s the first time Milwaukee residents will have an opportunity to select a non-incumbent mayoral candidate since 2004.

“We’re going to send this (photo) to the rest of the family, so they come,” Blalock said. “I think with a new (mayor) we’ll have changes. We need to do some things to bring money back to Milwaukee.”

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Seven candidates are vying for mayor. The top two vote-getters in the Feb. 15 primary election will face each other in the April 5 general election.

The candidates are: Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, former Alderman Bob Donovan, community activist Ieshuh Griffin, Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas, businessman Michael Sampson and Democratic State Sen. Lena Taylor.

There are three sites open in the city for voting this week. Next week, six more sites open.

Leroy Goodloe votes in every election, but this year he wanted to do it early.

“As long as the candidates do the right thing, like they are promising, it’s exciting,” Goodloe said. “All this killing and shooting, we need better protection so people can get back to normal. This violence needs to go, that’s my main concern right now.”

While Midtown Center was abuzz with early voters on Tuesday, John Johnson isn’t sure Milwaukee will break any records for voter turnout Feb. 15.

Johnson is a research fellow at Marquette University Law School. He said despite the historical nature of the mayoral election, primaries typically get about 20-25 percent voter turnout. During the 2012 primary, only 12 percent of people voted in Milwaukee.

The last time there was a primary in Milwaukee without an incumbent running, turnout was 40 percent. But that coincided with the presidential primary, so it’s not a very good comparison, Johnson said.

“I’ve had conversations with friends this past weekend that didn’t even know that there was a mayoral election coming up,” Johnson said. “They’ll probably find out before the election takes place, but if you don’t read local news regularly, maybe you haven’t gotten any fliers yet.”

The Marquette Law School Poll hasn’t studied the mayoral race, but Public Policy Polling, based in Raleigh, N.C., has.

In a poll released last month, Johnson was leading 25 percent, followed by Donovan at18 percent; Taylor at 13 percent, Dimitrijevic at 7 and Lucas at 5 percent. The other two candidates each got 1 percent. Thirty percent of people polled said they were “undecided.”

“Although (Cavalier) Johnson does have a clear front-runner status, anyone who says they know who will be in the general election with him doesn’t,” Johnson said. “There is really no way to say at this time.”

The poll also found that 50 percent of people said crime was the No. 1 issue they were concerned with, followed by education at 16 percent.

Back at Midtown Center, Tracy Wheeler said she enjoyed having Tom Barrett as mayor for nearly two decades but said change is good.

“He wanted to move on, it’s all good,” Wheeler said. “We should find out soon, what’s going to happen.”

Wheeler said she votes as soon as she can because she’s afraid voting rights for Black people are being taken away.

“That’s exactly what they are trying to do, stop my people from voting,” Wheeler said, referring to the Jan. 10 ruling from a Waukesha judge that absentee ballot drop boxes were illegal. “We need to get our early vote in.”

Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the drop boxes could be allowed for the state’s Feb. 15 primary.

Milwaukee has 15 absentee drop boxes that will be open until 5 p.m. on Feb. 15, said Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Elections Commission.

“It’s disappointing that we always have a flurry of litigation right before elections to cause voter confusion,” Woodall-Vogg said, adding that people can still request a ballot by mail until Feb. 10.