The Dane County clerk might not seem like a particularly sexy job, but don't tell that to the four candidates running for the post in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.
"I'm running because this is where the action is," says Scott McDonell, the current chair of the Dane County Board. "The efforts to suppress voters' rights is meant to turn Wisconsin from blue to red."
Santiago Rosas, a former Madison alder, says he's running because it's important to encourage people to vote. He says his parents, who were immigrants, often had a difficult time voting. "As a result, they didn't vote," he says. "We can't have good democracy unless all qualified people are registered to vote. I'm determined to encourage anyone who can vote to vote."
Their opponents, Mike Quieto, a Madison administrative support clerk, and Diane Hermann-Brown, the Sun Prairie city clerk, espouse similar messages about the significance of the job, while also touting their experience doing the work of clerks.
"It would be very difficult to come into this position with no knowledge of what the clerks do," says Hermann-Brown. "Why would you hire someone for a position that has absolutely no experience?"
"The clerk is such a nonpolitical, non-high-profile position," says Quieto. "I've always viewed it as such a technocratic position."
The job, which pays just under $85,000 a year now, will get a bump to just under $90,000 next year, says current clerk Karen Peters. In recent years, the biggest part of the job has been overseeing elections. The clerk's office has to make sure the county's 61 towns and municipalities get the ballots they need; helps train municipal clerks and elections inspectors; and maintains financial disclosure records from county candidates.
But there are other responsibilities. The clerk keeps marriage certificates for the county and also records for the Dane County Board and its committees.
The race has become somewhat ugly, with Quieto and Hermann-Brown accusing McDonell, the highest-profile name in the race, with using the position as a stepping-stone for higher office. County Executive Joe Parisi, who has endorsed McDonell, was clerk between 1997 and 2005.
"He's a great politician," Quieto says of McDonell. "He's incredibly good at policy and getting legislation through the county board." But, Quieto adds, "It's a totally different skill set" from being a clerk.
McDonell counters that running the County Board has given him vastly more managerial experience than his opponents have. The Dane County budget is half a billion dollars; the county clerk budget is around $1 million. In addition to fighting to keep elections fair and transparent and increasing voter registration, McDonell says he wants to improve the way the county operates.
"It's hard to find out what's going on in county government; it's hard to track legislation," he says. "All of that needs an overhaul."
Hermann-Brown thinks the most important task is training and overseeing clerks in municipalities. "The problems [with voting] that we're seeing around the state are with clerks that are not trained and election workers that are not trained."
McDonell has the funding edge, having collected $25,500 this year. Quieto has raised $21,200, Hermann-Brown $3,100, and Rosas $1,780.
No Republicans are running for the post, meaning the primary winner is assured victory in the Nov. 6 general election.