For many, Election Day represents the chance to exercise an essential American right and to celebrate the proud spirit of democracy. Heading to the polls to cast a vote can give a sense of pride, the excitement of civic participation, and the feeling of having made one’s voice heard. Not everyone in the U.S., however, has an equitable chance to participate and benefit from the institution of democratic elections. Historically, people of color have been systemically excluded from voting in both explicit and implicit ways. While the 1965 Voting Rights Act made racial discrimination in voting illegal, communities of color often still face systems of institutional and structural racism at the polls and throughout the election process.
The City of Madison, Wisconsin has been actively working to improve racial equity within its elections process. The city has utilized its Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative (RESJI), which is an approach to setting policies, determining practices and cultivating deliverables in institutional processes that take into account the need for racial equity and empowerment at all levels. Supported by RESJI, the Clerk’s Office looked at all aspects of its elections through a lens of racial equity. One of the innovative ways Madison has begun to make voting more equitable is changing policies and procedures around poll workers.
Historically, Madison has had no problem recruiting plenty of people to work at the polls. In the event that were not enough workers on a voting day, the city would issue a press release and immediately have plenty of people volunteer. However, the city noticed that the vast majority of its poll workers were white. In fact, only a few polling locations had people of color as workers.
As election laws became more complex over the past few years, the city had to almost double its number of poll workers. Madison saw this as an opportunity to improve the diversity of its poll workers. The broader goal of Madison’s poll worker diversification efforts included better voter turnout in historically underrepresented communities. The city believed that the more people could see someone they knew, or someone who is like them as a poll worker, the more welcome they would feel at the polling place. Feeling welcome at a polling place could lead someone to be more likely to vote. Being more likely to vote could lead to more active civic participation in other areas, such as contacting elected officials, serving on city committees, or even running for office.
Madison has performed extensive outreach to encourage people from historically underrepresented communities to become poll workers. Instead of issuing a press release when they need more workers, the city now reaches out to the Urban League, posts information on Madison Metro buses, lists the jobs at job centers around the city and on online job boards. The wards with the fewest poll workers are called Poll Worker Deserts, and recruitment efforts are now targeted to these areas. Poll worker recruitment in Poll Worker Desert neighborhoods has helped develop ambassadors of the voting process in those areas—people who can register voters (special registration deputies) and answer their neighbors’ questions about how to make sure their vote will count.
Madison has realized that in order to create a more diverse group of poll workers, they need to ensure that anyone in the community could actually make it to trainings and to polling places. Making poll worker training more accessible was an important part of this effort. Instead of only offering trainings only on weekdays, Madison now offers more scheduling options including nights and weekends. The trainings are offered in all areas of the city—downtown, UW campus, east, west, north and south. All the training locations are along bus routes. Additionally, there is an option to receive training through online videos if in-person training is inaccessible. The city tries to schedule people to work at their own polling place whenever possible, and offers two shifts to accommodate differing schedules: 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., or 1 p.m. to close.
Recognizing that communities most affected by legislative changes are often those most underrepresented at the polls, Madison has paired greater poll worker outreach efforts with greater voter outreach efforts. The city has also worked to eliminate jargon and acronyms from its website, brochures, and posters. In order to make the voting process less intimidating, the Clerk’s Office brings demonstration ballots and tabulators to food pantries, libraries, and community events to allow people to become familiar with how to mark a ballot and insert it in the tabulator. Children are especially anxious to try out the tabulator, and this often brings their parents into the conversation!
Not everyone wants to hear about voting from Clerk’s Office personnel, though. Madison recognizes that sometimes receiving information from the Urban League or from a faith-based group will hold more credibility than government personnel for an individual. Madison has partnered with numerous agencies and community groups who are willing to tweet important election information, include information in their newsletters, or distribute materials in their neighborhoods.
Madison Voter Outreach and Poll Worker Recruitment Partners:
- Public libraries
- Food pantries
- Job fairs
- Public housing
- Community dinners
- Neighborhood centers
- Parks Division (Meet & Eat events)
- Centro Hispano
- Civil Rights Department
- Homeless Consortium
- Urban League
- Boys & Girls Club
- Disability Rights groups
- 100 Black Men
- University events
- University student government
- Public transit (Madison Metro buses)
- Neighborhood associations
- Grocery stores
- Public schools
- Job centers
- Technical college
- Public Health
- League of Women Voters
- Latino radio and newspapers
- Hip hop radio
- University student newspapers and social media
- 1,500 Madisonians were deputized to register voters
Educating the Community on Racial Equity in Voting
Recruiting a racially diverse group of poll workers and improving voter turnout are not the only goals Madison has around elections. Madison has also worked to create a culture appreciative of diversity amongst both new and veteran poll workers. When it began gathering poll worker statistics on race and ethnicity, many veteran poll workers, some of whom had worked at the polls for decades, felt concerned that they may be pushed out to create room for diversity. In order to encourage buy-in to the vision of racial equity at the polls for all workers, Madison designed its poll worker training program to include information on how racism has systematically influenced voting in both a historical and contemporary context.
All poll workers now attend a one-hour training on racial equity and empowerment prior to each election. This training replaced what would have been poll worker voter ID training had the U.S. Supreme Court not blocked Wisconsin’s voter ID law from being implemented in the November 2014 General Election. Since implementing the training, approximately 1,800 poll workers have been introduced to the city’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative. Madison also provides trainings entitled Respecting Cultural Differences, aimed at minimizing miscommunication, and Intent vs. Impact, which looks at explicit bias, implicit bias, schemas and micro- aggressions.
Using Data to Track Progress and Create Goals
Collecting data helps Madison track their progress on each of their goals. On Election Day, each polling place has a poll worker statistics form to complete. Poll workers are asked to anonymously make a hash mark by the age range, gender, race and ethnicities with which they identify. These statistics are compiled citywide.
When the city first started collecting these statistics in 2010, 4% of poll workers identified as African-American, 0.4% identified as Asian, and 1% identified as Latino. All of these percentages had increased by 2014, with 7.6% of poll workers identifying as African-American, 3.1% as Asian, and 1.6% as Latino. According to the 2010 census, 6.8% of Madison residents were of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, 7.4% Asian, and 7.3% African-American.
Madison also tracks how many poll workers live in each of the city’s wards. The city has found that the Poll Worker Deserts also have low voter turnout, and will be watching to see any correlation between increased poll worker recruitment and increased voter turnout in these wards.
Data from the state election database helps Madison track voter turnout across neighborhoods. The data has shown that racially diverse neighborhoods have lower voter turnout than predominantly white neighborhoods. Madison’s goal is to increase voter turnout across the city and also bring low performing voting precincts in line with the city average.
The length of time a voter waits in line during November elections is another piece of data measured by the city. The goal is that no voter wait more than 15 minutes. A team of poll workers designated as the Rapid Response Team is available to move between polling places as needed for additional staffing, in order to keep wait times minimal.
Following each election, the City Clerk’s Office uses an equity lens to debrief every part of election preparation and the election process. Additionally, new poll workers are gathered in focus groups so the Clerk’s Office can receive feedback on their experiences and suggestions about working at the polls.
Lessons Learned and Advice
Madison learned some lessons along the way while doing their racial equity in elections work.
These are some of their realizations and the advice that Madison would share with other jurisdictions:
- Understand that in doing racial justice work, it is natural to encounter resistance.
- Part of this work is demonstrating the need in the community for the work. Be prepared that there may be resistance to the very idea that racial inequity is happening or that racial justice is necessary.
- Allies working in the areas of racial justice and equal rights are vitally important. Find and cultivate relationships with them. Sometimes just having a sympathetic but objective ear to listen helps tremendously.
- Facebook is not the only outreach tool! Social media is only one form of media – use as many ways to reach out as possible.
- Understand that there are levels of self-awareness around racism. Someone may say something hurtful or ignorant. Understand that this may truly come from a place of not knowing. In those situations, choose teaching over judging.
Percentage of Madison Poll Workers by Race
Data Driven: Madison tracks data on poll worker demographics, voter turnout, as well as wait times at the polls. This data is used to track progress and create goals that will further drive equity at the polls.
Madison’s Equity and Empowerment Poll Worker Training Curriculum Includes:
- Statistics on the state of racial disparities in the community
- Historical examples of structural racism in elections:
- 1955 Mississippi voter literacy test
- 1965 Alabama voter literacy test
- 1964 Louisiana voter literacy test
- Recent examples of institutional bias in local election administration:
- Poll worker training only offered on weekdays
- Poll worker training at locations not accessible by public transit
- Examples of micro-aggressions at the polls
- Introduction to the racial equity lens
Maribeth Witzel-Behl, City Clerk