Polling place April 5, 2011

Voters at Ward 39 polling place at Gate of Heaven on E Gorham Street in the April 5, 2011 elections.

State Journal archives

Residents of Madison’s most diverse neighborhoods might notice some changes at their polling places this spring. The diversity of the election officers should more closely match the makeup of the neighborhood.

Recruiting a more diverse pool of election officials is one way the Madison City Clerk’s Office is leading efforts to eliminate inequities in the way it does business.

“Several years ago the polling place election officers were primarily white people,” says Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl. “Our goal is for the polling places to be reflective of the communities they are located in.”

Over the past few years, her office has recruited enough African-Americans to the pool of election officials so that city polling places generally reflect the city's population. But there is still a ways to go in recruiting an adequate number of Latino election officials, Witzel-Behl says. Her staff is also working to recruit enough young election officials so that half of them are college-age at campus area polling places.

The Clerk’s Office is just one department sizing up its operations with an eye toward adopting more equitable practices as part of a city government-wide commitment to an equity impact model, a measure the Common Council unanimously endorsed in a resolution passed in October.

The city hosted a workshop Feb. 4 to hear about equity efforts in Seattle, a city that is a leader in what is becoming a national trend. And Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, in introducing the city’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative to the media that day, talked about how public investments need to be evaluated in terms of whose interests they reflect. The city invested $2 million in the Cannonball Bike Path bridge over the Beltline, for example, that cycling demographics suggest will be little used by the 30 percent of city residents who are Latino, African-American or Asian.

Denise DeMarb, the far-east side alder who was the primary sponsor of the resolution calling for use of an equity impact model, says that inequitable practices will increasingly harm the city in the future.

“The way we are living is not sustainable,” DeMarb says. “Twenty years from now, we’ll have as many brown people as white people, and most of the brown people in this country are now living in poverty. We don’t have the jobs we need to sustain a lot of people.”

A paper from Policy Link, a national economic and social equity institute, that was circulated to Madison city council members notes that “many elders and decision makers do not see themselves reflected in the faces of the next generation, and they are not investing in the same educational systems and community infrastructure that enabled their own success.”

DeMarb says she has spoken with Madisonians who don’t see inequities in their neighborhoods and heard a bit of initial grumbling from her fellow alders that the equity resolution was unnecessary.

“It may not affect their everyday lives now, but it will affect the everyday lives of our grandchildren if we don’t move in another direction. The growing poverty is not sustainable,” she says.

“Even if you don’t buy in to the moral implications... It’s too costly, in dollars and in lost potential,” DeMarb says.

Witzel-Behl says that changes as relatively minor as working to ensure people encounter officials like themselves at the polling place matter.

“You feel more welcome than if nobody at the polling place looks like you. Making the polls ‘accessible’ isn’t just making sure the pathway to the place is clear, it’s also making sure that the polls feel welcoming,” she says.

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The Clerk’s Office, with assistance from the city Department of Civil Rights and Public Health Madison and Dane County, developed its work plan for 2014-2015 by attempting to look at issues through an “equity lens,” Witzel-Behl said.

The process prompted staff members to set a November, 2014 goal date on their election official diversity efforts, so that they will be moving more quickly toward what had been a long-term goal, she says.

Workers also brought into focus their desire to become more fluent in Spanish to serve Spanish-speaking customers seeking, for example, the restaurant and liquor licenses administered by the Clerk’s Office.

“The entire office wants to learn to speak Spanish,” Witzel-Behl says. “That’s something I didn’t see coming.”

Just where and how that staff training will take place has not been decided, although Witzel-Behl says she knows that it will take place in 2015 after the work of election year 2014 is done.

The details will be part of the department’s efforts to allocate its resources through an equity lens when budgeting for 2015 is done later this year, she says.

Using an equity lens doesn’t mean that cyclists don’t get the bridge over the Beltline, DeMarb says.

“I hope it means people start making decisions with their eyes open to the people who are not in the room and remember them and their needs also," she says. "It’s a matter of looking at spending in an overall equitable way.”