Madison Clerk’s Office Honored for Safe, Secure Elections in the Midst of a Pandemic
I’m pleased to share with you some statewide recognition our City is receiving, because of the work of two strong women and their amazing staff. The Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan research group, recently announced that Madison is a winner of the “Salute to Local Government Award” due to the incredible work of Public Health Madison & Dane County Director Janel Heinrich and Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl. Read my blog about Director Heinrich here.
This year will be remembered in the history books not only for the pandemic, but also as an important election year with implications for municipal, county, state and federal races. The pandemic has impacted voting drastically. Leading the way on innovating and providing safe, secure and healthy elections has been the Madison City Clerk’s Office, led by City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl (pictured, above right) and her exceptional team.
The Clerk’s Office has arguably the very best mission statements in town: “We exist to assist.”
This agency’s remit is not only running free and fair elections for Madison, but also a wide variety of external customer services such as notary, licenses for food and lodging establishments, permits for liquor sales, and many more activities that helps make Madison a vibrant community. The award focuses on the challenges overcome in running elections for Madison in the midst of a 100-year pandemic by this agency with just 10 full-time employees.
Madison has conducted two elections since COVID-19 struck Wisconsin, and coming to the end of the third. This has not been an average election cycle. Concerns about COVID-19 have led many, many more people to request absentee ballots. This meant that the Clerk’s Office had to dramatically ramp up their absentee ballot operation, while still providing in-person voting at early voting sites and at polling places on Election Day.
One significant challenge for the April 7, 2020 spring election, which occurred in the midst of local and state “Safer at Home Orders,” was that many poll workers were unable to work the polls due to legitimate safety concerns. In fact, a whopping 1,300 scheduled poll workers abruptly rescinded their commitments in April and August and many polling places had to be changed for safety reasons. More than half the polling locations in the City were in jeopardy of being shut down due to lack of personnel. The Clerk’s Office initiated an aggressive recruiting drive in order to be able to keep a majority of the planned polling locations open and staffed with newly trained poll workers, and succeeded in avoiding the unacceptably long wait times experienced by other jurisdictions.
This represented a heavy lift for Maribeth and her small team to coordinate in a safe and organized manner, but at the end of the day, Madison did not experience long lines that other jurisdictions experienced. The success of these elections is also a testament to the numerous City employees from other divisions, of all titles and levels, who volunteered to work shifts at the polling stations while knowing the risks, along with members of the Madison public who answered the call.
Voters understandably expressed fear. New protocols had to quickly be put in place for PPE and sanitation of polling stations. Meanwhile, mail-in voting was promoted and executed. This required modifying and redirecting some of the City’s resources. Voting innovations such as Plexiglas shields, masks, curbside voting, outdoor voting and copious amounts of sanitizer were staged to make it all possible. Library drop boxes were utilized to return absentee ballots to closed libraries.
In preparing for the next election, the City sought and received a large grant from a nonpartisan NGO called the Center for Tech and Civic Life to further secure the supplies needed to run safe elections in the middle of a pandemic, recruit poll workers with higher pay, and establish for the first time safe, secure drop boxes at local fire stations, so that people had more options for returning a flood of anticipated absentee ballots.
Even before the pandemic struck, the Clerk’s Office had procedures in place to make it easy to vote. The office has done a commendable job of publicly sharing the most up to date voting and election information on an active website and excellent social media platforms in coordination with other agencies and the media to make sure all eligible voters may exercise their right to a free and fair election.
On November 3, the Clerk’s Office is planning to keep 92 locations open while managing a large influx of volunteers from City ranks and from the public. Maribeth and staff have recruited over 6,000 local individuals willing to work on election day and in the many early voting days leading up to November 3.
We will get through this period, but there is much left to be done before the COVID-19 pandemic is defeated. Throughout the fast-changing adjustments in 2020 made by both Public Health and Clerk’s Office and the support agencies behind them, Madison used the rubric we like to call #TeamCity to get it done. However, the Clerk’s Office and Public Health, and the women who lead them, Janel Heinrich and Maribeth Witzel-Behl, are especially deserving of the 2020 Wisconsin Policy Forum Annual Awards.
Follow the news on Election Day directly from the source! The Office of the Clerk Twitter account can be accessed here.