Last Thursday, Carl Silverman was asked to stop doing something he thinks is clearly in the public interest by an agency whose mission, he thought, is to serve the public interest. He was asked by an official at the South Madison Health and Family Center-Harambee to cease and desist from trying to register voters.
"I'm afraid I must ask you to leave," Silverman says he was told by Jennifer Lord, the center's executive director, purportedly. He's also heard that the Dane County Job Center has restricted the hours during which people may register voters there.
For-profit entities including Wal-Mart and Walgreens, notes Silverman, have welcomed in voter-registration volunteers.
"It seems ironic and peculiar to me that institutions that are supposed to act in the public interest are the ones who don't permit people who are trying to enhance the public interest from doing their thing," says Silverman, a retired physician who lives in Madison.
Silverman is among more than 550 people who have been deputized by the Madison city clerk's office to register voters. The city administers an oath and provides basic instruction in the state law governing voter registration, says city clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl. It does not, she says, instruct people on where they can register voters.
Silverman says he told Lord he had "permission from the city clerk" to register voters, to no avail. He's "outraged by the fact that after practicing medicine in this community for over 30 years and working as a volunteer physician at the Access Community Health Center within Harambee for eight years since my retirement, I get kicked out of a public space by a witless bureaucrat."
Lord, the witless bureaucrat, says her agency has an across-the-board policy against allowing people to approach clients as they enter the facility. Some people are coming there for sensitive medical matters, and some may be not be legal residents. "We want people to feel safe," she says. "We want to make sure people who may be undocumented feel safe coming here to get the services they need."
According to Lord, Silverman was "walking right up to [clients] as they were coming into the clinic." Had he approached them in the parking lot or on the sidewalk, she would have had no objection. She adds that the center has arranged to have people who are trying to register voters come in at night.
Silverman is angered by this explanation. He says Lord never told him any of these things and now is "misrepresenting what transpired in order to avoid negative publicity." But Lord doesn't claim to have explained all of this to Silverman and her center's across-the-board policy would probably pass constitutional muster.
As for the Dane County Job Center, contacting an actual human being who works there is even more difficult than getting a job in the current economy. But Topf Wells, an aide to county executive Kathleen Falk, says the center allows voter registration three days a week, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 9 am to 2:30 pm. He believes these times, when traffic to the center in heaviest, were "mutually agreed on" by center staff and voter registration workers.
Wells says there was a women with a small child at the Job Center who was "occasionally getting a little boisterous" in approaching folks. "We asked the lady to be a little more careful."
Steve Pickett, a local elections specialist with the state Governmental Accountability Board, says he knows of no legal reason to restrict people seeking to register voters on public property. He can't think of any philosophical ones either.
"To me, registering someone to vote is a positive, no matter how you slant it," he says. "I have no idea why people wouldn't want you to be signing up people to participate in democracy."