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September 2014


Elections take toll on municipal clerks

Lake Country clerks recall the year's stressors

Most Lake Country municipal clerks haven't had time to recover from the hectic 2012 election year because they are too busy planning the next election.

In 22 communities, voters will go the polls to elect Paul Farrow who has no opponent in his bid for filling the state senate seat vacated earlier this year by Rich Zipperer who resigned from the senate to join Governor Scott Walker's staff.

It will be the seventh or eighth election in the past 10 months, depending on how you count or define elections during this past year.

For some communities there were spring municipal and primary elections. There also were the primary and general elections for the gubernatorial recall. And, there was the statewide presidential primary and general elections. In addition, some communities had legislative recall primary and general elections while other communities had primary and general elections to fill the vacancy created by Zipperer's resignation.

"It has been a very busy year. I have had a hard time reading all of the materials because it seems we have had one election after another," said Oconomowoc City Clerk Diane Coenen.

"The words 'exhausting', 'expensive' and sometimes 'frustrating' come to mind when describing this past year," added Delafield City Clerk Gina Gresch, former president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerk's Association.

In addition to the number of elections, there was uncertainty about new election laws, unexpectedly high numbers of absentee ballots, early voters, and new registrations along with heavy voter turnouts and new document filing requirements that could barely be completed before the administration of the next election would begin.

Wisconsin's voting system is unique among the 50 states. It is the only state where there is a non partisan,independent, appointed state board (Government Accountability Board) responsible for the implementation of state election laws, according to Reid Magney, a spokesman for the GAB.

It is also one of few states where nonpartisan municipal election officials are responsible for administering elections, according to a website survey of state election laws.

"Wisconsin has the most decentralized voting system in the country because there are 1,851 municipal clerks who are responsible for administering elections," Magney said. He added that 60 per cent of those clerks are part-time.

For example, in the Village of Merton, the only full-time employee is in the public works department. The clerk and deputy clerk responsible for running the elections are part-time employees.

Village Clerk Tom Nelson was among numerous municipal officials who expressed concern that other duties assigned to the clerk's office such as preparing meeting agenda and minutes, maintaining public records, issuing permits and other duties were delayed because so much time was being spent on elections in 2012.

"There were some days that I did not get anything else done but sit at my desk registering voters," added Nashotah Village Clerk Cynthia Pfeifer.

The lack of understanding and trust in the voting system by voters is one Gresch's biggest frustrations.

"I had one person who handed in his absentee ballot and asked me if we going to put it in the paper shredder," she said.

"The reason there is a lack of trust is because there is a lack of understanding," Gresch said.

Municipal clerks began 2012 in training sessions learning about a new state law that required voters show a designated photo identification card and sign poll books before they could vote. Some municipal clerks were able to test their implementation of the new law in the February primary election.

However, a month later, two circuit court judges blocked further implementation of the law until the constitutionality of the photo ID requirement could be decided in the courts.

"All of the paperwork required by the WisconsinGovernment Accountability Board was extremely time consuming," Coenan noted.

Magney explained some of the documentation is required by federal law and is also intended to provide the state legislature with new information about voting in Wisconsin.

The increase in absentee ballots appeared to be the product of political parties and special interest groups trying to encourage their voters to cast ballots either by mail or in person and the growing popularity of "early voting" where voters have an opportunity to cast their ballots prior to the designated Election Day

"Handling all of the absentee ballots became our biggest problem," said Town of Lisbon Deputy Clerk Sandi Gettelman.

"We had to call in some of our election workers and pay them to help us out. We had never had to do that before," said the 24-year-veteran of local elections.

Pfeifer said the push for absentee and early voters contributed to higher than expected voter registration.

"According to the census bureau we are supposed to have 980 residents of voting age, but we now have 1,053 registered voters," she noted. "I am not sure where they all came from."

Governor Scott Walker has said he would sign legislation passed by the Assembly that eliminated Wisconsin's unique same day vote registration. Gettelman said she might support the idea because it would allow local election officials to concrete on administering the election on Election Day instead of also having to register voters.

But Gresch and Pfeifer said closing down same day voter registration would be put more strain on both voters and election works.

"Sometimes election is the only time a voter has to register. I think if it we did away with it, it would only require more work because we would have more people trying register to vote before Election Day," Gresch added.

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