Nothing can rile a taxpayer quite like an unplowed street or missed garbage pickup. The delivery of basic services can make or break a mayoral career.
But a funny thing happened in the last year or so: In two separate city surveys, Madison residents identified election administration as one of the priority services delivered by city employees. In one case, 94% of respondents who attended a community budget meeting on city administration said that election administration was of "high" importance to them, right after the provision of emergency medical service by the fire department but before bus, sewer, snow removal, recycling and refuse services.
A web survey of city residents conducted between July 26 and Sept. 1 had similar results: 72% of respondents rated election administration of high importance. That also ranked higher than such city services as park maintenance, street repair, the management of communicable diseases and traffic safety control.
City Clerk Marybeth Witzel-Behl says she was surprised - and gratified - by the results.
"We always thought elections were the most sacred thing we deal with," says Witzel-Behl. But, she adds, "I didn't realize the community echoed that value."
At a reporter's request, Karl Van Lith in the city's Organizational Development and Training Office looked at past surveys and other "feedback measurement initiatives" to compare how residents felt about their election services over the years. "Interestingly, we don't appear to have ever asked that question - or needed to ask that question - in the past," Van Lith wrote in an email. "Changes like voter ID appear to have focused people's attentions on elections again."
So have, undoubtedly, incidents like the one in Waukesha County where County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus temporarily misplaced some 7,000 ballots in the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court election.
But if the public is fixated on election administration and the implications of state Republicans' new voter ID law - which requires voters to present a photo ID and sign a poll book in order to cast a ballot - so is the Madison City Clerk's office. The office has stepped up its usual voter education efforts, holding outreach sessions at senior centers, community centers and even food pantries. And, with the upcoming 2012 presidential face-off in mind - as well as a now anticipated recall election of Gov. Scott Walker - staff is actively studying ways to make sure these new measures do not create long lines on Election Day.
Staff members even traveled to Kenosha and Burlington this summer to observe voting during the recall elections. With stopwatch in hand, they found that voters were spending two minutes just at the poll books, says Witzel-Behl.
The office was also closely observing this summer's special election in Madison for the 48th Assembly District seat vacated by Joe Parisi, now the Dane County executive. Witzel-Behl says it took voters about twice as long as usual to vote during the July primary.
"If like me your ID is buried in your purse, it takes time to find it," she says. "And it takes time to put away the ID. It also takes time to sign the poll book."
In a phasing in of the voter ID law, poll workers were required this summer to ask for a photo ID, but voters did not have to show one. Starting in 2012, voters without a photo ID will only be allowed to cast a provisional ballot, which won't be counted until they show a valid ID at the clerk's office by 4 p.m. the Friday after the election.
While none of these extra tasks made for long lines this summer, Witzel-Behl is concerned about the impact of the new law in high-profile races.
"We don't want voters to give up without voting," she says. "And if lines do get long we want election officials to know what to do to help voters get through the line and to get the line back to a reasonable level."
The city's standard has been to get people through the voting process in 15 minutes, says Witzel-Behl. "We need to find out what standard we will have for next year." To help in that endeavor, the City Clerk's office held a mock election Tuesday in which all the requirements of the voter ID law were implemented. The dry run confirmed the new rules will mean longer waits at the polls.
One thing certain is that the city will need more poll workers. To that end, Mayor Paul Soglin is proposing an additional $345,000 on top of the city clerk's $1.43 million budget request so that the minimal staffing for each voting ward will increase from five to nine poll workers.
If voters want to vote, says Witzel-Behl, "we want them to be able to do so."
All those "Recall Walker" pledges signed since the Capitol protests began in February will finally be put to use.
The grassroots group United Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Democratic Party have announced that the two groups are ready to launch recall efforts against Gov. Scott Walker on Nov. 15.
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate made an appeal for donations and volunteers on the party's website Monday night, hours before he was set to go on The Ed Schultz Show to share the news.
"In fewer than 37 days, we will need to organize, train and fund an army of grassroots volunteers who will need to collect more than 540,206 valid recall signatures," Tate wrote. "Before I go on the air, can I count on you to make a donation of $11.15 toward our goal of raising $540,206 by Nov. 15?"
According to state law, Walker must be in office a year before recall papers can be filed with the Government Accountability Board; that means papers could be delivered as early as Jan. 3, 2012.
One-fourth the number of ballots cast in the November 2010 gubernatorial election, or 540,206 signatures, is needed to trigger a recall election.
United Wisconsin has been collecting pledges to recall Walker on its website and says it has 202,516 pledges in hand. All those who signed the pledge will now be contacted by the group and directed to where they can sign an actual recall petition.
The groups have 60 days to circulate petitions; the recall election could be held as early as April 2012.
Who might run against Walker is still an open question. Potential candidates include former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk; state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, one of the 14 Democratic senators who fled the state to delay passage of Walker's collective bargaining law; former U.S. Rep. Dave Obey and state Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca.
At one point, Kyle Hanson believed in the American dream. He spent five years in the military and four in college. By the time he graduated in May with a business degree in general management he had been looking for a job for more than six months. It's now been a year and he still hasn't found anything. He is deflated and angry.
"I feel like the system has worked against me," says Hanson, 27, moments before he and about 80 other protesters taking part in Occupy Madison leave Reynolds Park on Sunday to march to the Capitol. "There are many people suffering from the actions of a very few people."
It's a familiar theme of the Occupy Wall Street protests that launched Sept. 17 in New York City and have spread to cities across the country. "Until we get our voices back there's no real change that's going to happen," Hanson adds. "It's not happening from the top down."
The widening income gap Hanson alludes to is reflected in signs and T-shirts worn by some of those taking part in Occupy Madison: "We are the 99 percent," they read.
Bill Fetty says the protesters at Occupy Madison were there for a variety of reasons: Some experienced sharp pay cuts due to Walker's proposals and some were inspired by the protests in New York. Many are simply at the end of their rope. "For a lot of people, it's just too much to take anymore," he says.
The crowd numbers waxed and waned over the weekend, but even the warm, sunny weather on Sunday afternoon did not draw more than 100 to the park. That didn't mean the occupation wasn't having an impact, says Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, who spent time at the protest throughout the weekend.
"It's a reminder to the greater community that right now things are not fair," says Ross. Keeping people mindful of how "thirsty they are," he adds, "is the most important thing you can do."