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Getting ready for the spring election part II: Navigating the noise

What’s on display as voting rules change and County Board seats turn over.

Image: A “Vote Here” sign in front of glass doors advertises the start of early voting at Pinney Library, and other locations around Madison.

Last week Tone Madison published a guide to the April 5 election. You can now vote early in-person at locations around Madison.

Keep in mind two important changes since the last election: some polling places have changed after redistricting, and the absentee ballot drop-boxes that became a hallmark of pandemic voting in 2020 are not an option in Wisconsin for the spring election.

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Planning on voting absentee? An Isthmus article earlier this week included recommendations from Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl that you request an absentee ballot this week and, if voting by mail, return it “at least one week in advance of the election to ensure it arrives before election day.” That means getting it in the mail next Thursday, March 31.

The court ruling that prohibits absentee ballot drop boxes in this April election also introduces potentially insurmountable challenges to voting for Wisconsinites with disabilities, reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Voters must personally mail or deliver their ballots—they can’t be given to a family member or friend to drop off or mail.

The ruling followed a lawsuit filed by the right-wing Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and is still awaiting a final order from the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. It is possible the ruling will be overturned before the August 9 (primary) and November 8 (midterm) elections.

Commentary: pushing past procedural noise

If you follow the wide sidewalks along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from the Wisconsin State Capitol building towards Monona Terrace, you’ll pass the City-County Building on your right. The City-County Building (CCB) is home to the City Clerk’s office—perhaps you’ve stopped in on a voting-related errand. People are also incarcerated in the CCB: the oldest and most decrepit portion of the Dane County Jail is located in this building.

In pre-pandemic times, the rows of seats in room 201 of the CCB would fill with elected officials on the first and third weeks of the month. Madison Alders would meet Tuesdays, and Dane County Supervisors would meet Thursdays. (Now they meet online.)

Though far less recognizable than the State Capitol, this seat for local government—both municipal (Madison) and countywide (Dane)—is home to elected offices that are arguably more accessible than our state legislators. But it’s not just the building that’s less recognizable. Public attention to the Dane County Board of Supervisors and Madison Common Council waxes and wanes with local issues, but it takes concerted time and energy to keep up with their policy-making.

That isn’t necessarily an accident. Walking into room 201 on the evening of a Council or Board meeting can be intimidating if you’re not sure how it works—where or how to fill out and submit a registration slip indicating your support or opposition to a position, following the course of the agenda through a barrage of procedural motions. And though elected officials love to thank members of the public for attending meetings and sharing input, any vocal pushback to their decisions is often met with dismissiveness and derision. The call to “follow the rules” can be used as a barrier to real feedback, dialogue and change—white supremacy culture in a nutshell.

“But, Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”

“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything.”

“But the plans were on display… ”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a torch.”

“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of The Leopard.’”

— The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Get to know the Dane County Board

The Dane County Board of Supervisors is often even less visible than the Common Council. This April 5, all 37 seats of the Dane County Board of Supervisors are up for election. Of those seats, more than half could potentially see new Supervisors take office. During the last election of the County Board in 2020 (Supervisors serve two-year terms), there was also significant turnover.

We’ve created this cheat sheet listing the candidates with links to Q&As and other resources.

The Dane County Board of Supervisors is one of the largest county boards in Wisconsin, with 37 districts, each represented by one supervisor. Though it’s technically nonpartisan, there are clear conservative and progressive affiliations among the supervisors. And though many of the supervisors might call themselves liberal, recent debates—and silenced legislation—on issues related to policing and incarceration reveal only a small handful of reliably progressive votes.

Supervisors work alongside other county elected officials, including the County Executive (up for election in 2025), the County Sheriff (up for election this November), and the County District Attorney (up for election in 2024). But it is the County Board that holds the purse strings. The County Board votes each fall for next year’s budget, setting priorities for spending on transportation and infrastructure, public health, housing and human services, environmental and conservation projects, and for the sheriff’s office. It’s not always easy to find your way to the display department, but the plans there have a big impact on our lives.

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