Maribeth Witzel-Behl has one of the most important jobs in the city of Madison. She's the city clerk. If you think that means all she does is boring things with papers, think again. She's the person who makes sure we all get to vote in this town.
This year that's a challenging job, thanks to the state's new voter identification law. That law got a lot of people mad. Witzel-Behl got to work. Under her direction, Madison has launched the most aggressive voter education campaign in the state. She and her staff of five have now held 259-and-counting information sessions about the new regulations in food pantries, senior citizen homes, neighborhood centers and other places throughout the city. They have left flyers all over the city too and sent inserts with property tax bills and almost every other official mailing they can think of.
The first test of this effort will come during the Feb. 21 local primary elections, but the real ones will be the presidential and likely recall elections coming up later this year. Witzel-Behl, 38, thinks turnout could be higher than ever for what is shaping up to be an all-out effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker. She hopes turnout is massive, not because she has any particular political agenda, but because she was raised, she says, to think of voting as a civic obligation.
Her dad was a union member who worked for the General Motors plant in Janesville. Her grandfather was a civil engineer (he designed Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the little plastic bears honey comes in) who took her to city council meetings in Edgerton when the big debate was about whether the town should build a new swimming pool.
While in high school, she wrote Local Happenings, the town paper's gossip column, and after she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1995, she went to Iowa to edit a couple of magazines: Midwest Streams and Trails and Draft Horse Journal. But her husband couldn't get a teaching job in Iowa, so in 1997 she moved to the Madison area. After working in the Capitol she was hired by the city clerk's office to handle liquor license applications. Two years later, in 2006, she was promoted to city clerk.
Capital Times: Not many people know what a city clerk does.
Maribeth Witzel-Behl: Our most sacred obligation is voting. We also post the minutes for the (city) council and the agenda and handle liquor licenses, but the most important thing that we do is facilitate the right to vote.
CT: You used the word "sacred" to describe your voting duties.
MWB: Yes. Everybody in the office feels that way about it. It's not just a job that we check off our list. We want to make sure that we are doing it right, that we are following the law and that we are not disenfranchising anybody. We want an election to be what we call recall-proof, so that it would withstand a recount and there wouldn't be questions as to the integrity of the election.
CT: Do you find yourself feeling like this is an extraordinary time in Wisconsin elections?
MWB: Yes. It feels right now like we are starting from scratch. All of our manuals we had to redo. I spent the whole past weekend rewriting a 122-page guide for election officials on each step of the election process because so much has changed. It's not a matter of replacing just a few pages. We had to reprint all of our signage because statutes have changed and the language we have to use at the polls has changed. And then we have to retrain all the election officials on everything that they have done so well. They have to adapt now to the new requirements.
CT: Did you feel that these changes were needed?
MWB: I don't know. We haven't had any cases where we've heard that somebody's pretending to be somebody else at the polling place.
CT: In Madison there have been no cases of voter fraud?
MWB: Not that I'm aware of. No. But whatever the law is, whatever they pass in the Legislature, that's what we're going to have to follow, although it's really hard to have to look at people who might not have their vote count. There are people who have quite a few obstacles, and that's killing us, to know we're going to encounter that. In September we made it a priority to get out in the community and let as many people as possible know about all these changes so we don't have many people who are surprised at the polls, but we can't reach everybody.
CT: How do you know that there will be people you can't reach? The GOP says that this new law is not that big of a deal.
MWB: There are people who haven't been to any of our education sessions. They don't get a property tax bill so they don't get the flyer that we sent out in the tax bills. They don't read the papers so they haven't seen anything about it printed in the newspaper. They're just struggling to get through each day but then if they decide to get out and vote, they're going to find out that day that they need to go through all these steps to be able to vote.
CT: Some people would say that that's their problem, that they weren't responsible citizens.
MWB: But it's our job to bring the voting process to them. It's not just a matter of publishing new legal procedures and saying "this is a new rule, everybody follow it!" I feel we're responsible for letting people know in advance what to expect and making voting accessible to them. If they have the right to vote they should be able to do so.
CT: Who are these people?
MWB: They are elderly people who stopped driving and they have their children pay their bills and they don't have a need for an ID right now. People who for whatever reason have moved to Wisconsin and not had a chance yet to go get a Wisconsin ID and a Wisconsin driver's license. Their out-of-state license is good for another year so they are holding off a little bit before they have to go and pay for a new license. We've encountered a lot of people at the food pantries who needed to get a Wisconsin ID. We've been asking everybody we've been talking to to talk to at least three of their friends or neighbors or family members, because if everybody we talk to talks to more people then the word will spread faster.
CT: Do you believe that these groups have been targeted?
MWB: I don't know what the strategy is but that certainly is the effect. Statistically, young African-American males are less likely to have a driver's license. We've been working with an African-American sorority in Madison. They've been going to churches and doing outreach. I have been meeting with pastors to help people get the money they need to get the voter ID. Though the voter ID is free you still need that certified birth certificate, and that costs $20 in Dane County. If you are struggling to make rent or to have enough food for your children, are you going to spend $20 on a certified birth certificate?
CT: How much impact are these efforts having?
MWB: We've had a lot of voter registration, so we know there's a lot of interest in voting right now. I've heard from a lot of people that now that they see what happens when they don't vote, they will never miss another election again. So I think we are going to see higher turnout.
CT: So your job is not just a boring clerical job, but not many people realize that.
MWB: One of the comparisons somebody uses in the office is that we're like ducks. On top of the water, it looks like we're just gliding along. But beneath the water we're paddling madly. Nobody needs to know all that we're doing behind the scenes to pull the election together. But as long as we're doing all this work, people might as well vote.