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Wauwatosa's city clerk works to put poll workers in place for spring election

Early deadline and laws on partisan mix provide challenges

Dec. 11, 2013

The spring election is more than three months away, but Wauwatosa City Clerk Carla Ledesma has just a few days left to have 130 poll workers in place.

She said it's likely she'll have enough, but "we're always looking for alternates, because people get sick, are on vacation, can't make it for whatever reason. ... Crazy stuff happens."

Some poll workers are motivated by a sense of civic duty, and others may be motivated by pay — poll workers in Wauwatosa receive $100 for a long day's work, plus $10 for attending a "highly recommended" training session, Ledesma said.

Getting the number of poll workers required is not as difficult as finding the partisan mix that state law encourages, Ledesma said.

Partisan poll workers

While the work is non-partisan, the law requires a partisan mix of poll workers when possible. At this, Ledesma finds that Republicans have in recent years been reliable providers of poll workers, while Democrats have not.

State elections law requires the heads of local governments — the mayor, in Wauwatosa — to nominate poll workers to the municipal council at its last regular meeting of every odd numbered year, which means Ledesma has to have her list ready by Dec. 17. The workers chosen would be asked to serve at six elections through 2015.

State election law also says poll worker nominees "are to come first from lists submitted by the two dominant political parties, which are due no later than November 30 of odd numbered years," according to the Government Accountability Board.

Active Republicans

"We do get names from the Republican Club of Wauwatosa — that's the only major party that has been submitting names on a regular basis for the last several years," Ledesma said. The local club — Wauwatosa Republicans — has been submitting names for about eight years.

Karen Albers, who coordinates poll worker recruitment for the Wauwatosa Republicans, said she is motivated by stories she has heard of election fraud.

"Thinking about it, your first level of defense is to have good, honest poll workers," she said. Out of 130 poll workers, there are 65 Republican slots, and last week Albers had all but a few filled.

Silence from Democrats

Ledesma's job would be easier if the other major party was as active.

"Many years ago the Democratic Party used to submit names — I'm talking, oh, 10, 15 years ago. They have not, for the last several years," she said.

"I've sent out emails at re-appointment time, and I know the state Government Accountability Board sends out letters to the major parties at re-appointment time — you know, 'contact your clerk' — and I have not heard from the Democratic Party at all."

If the parties do not submit enough names, the law allows appointments without regard to party affiliation, Ledesma said.

Reporter calls over several days to the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County were not returned.

Seeking 'party imbalance'

Another wrinkle in state law lays out what is called "party imbalance" at the polling places.

What this means is that a Republican-voting ward should have three Republican poll workers, and two Democratic or non-affiliated poll workers. Likewise, a Democratic-voting ward should have three Democrats and two Republicans.

Ledesma said, based on last year's presidential elections, the city is split: 12 wards voting Democratic, 12 Republican.

Frustrating for clerks

Of course, there's nothing party-related about the work of a poll worker — in fact, there can't be.

"And that's what's frustrating for a lot of clerks, because we always stress to the poll workers you check your affiliation at the door, you don't wear any hats or caps or T-shirts or buttons, you don't discuss politics, and it's very difficult for many clerks," Ledesma said. "They feel very constrained because of the state statutes. It varies in different parts of the state, if the parties are very active or not."

She added: "Part of the challenge is it seems people are less inclined to join parties, so you have this huge pool of unaffiliated people that are very willing to work," she said.

Many of the unaffiliated people who apply are retirees with flexible schedules.

Ledesma also has reached out to high school classes, who have filled some positions. The minimum age for a poll worker is 16 — not even old enough to vote.

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