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Educating the electorate: Stottler discovers it’s not that easy

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ANN MARIE AMES
April 5, 2010
— Sometimes a funny thing happens when you set out to write a research paper: when you’re done, you’ve learned something you didn’t expect.

That was the case for Rock County Clerk Lori Stottler who has been doing research as part of a two-year Certified Public Manager program at UW-Madison.


The goals are to determine the per-ballot costs of local elections and then find out if it would be a good idea to combine spring and fall elections into one large ballot.


Currently, Wisconsin voters each spring choose leaders for such non-partisan positions as city councils, county boards and school boards.


Fall elections include partisan races such as sheriff, governor, state and federal legislators and president.


The other question Stottler seeks to answer is how to increase the public’s interest in local, non-partisan elections.


She’s learning a lot of work could have to be done to improve voter turnout.


“My original paper is not the paper I really thought I was going to wind up with,” Stottler said. “I’m surprised at where we are as a community and as a country with local elections.”


Stottler holds two elected positions. In addition to running local elections as the county clerk, she serves on the Janesville School Board.


Stottler has learned that her hands are somewhat tied when it comes to seeking new methods of educating the public about elections or increasing voter turnout.


Partisan elections including the presidential election draw up to 70 percent of eligible voters to the polls. Local elections often draw as few as 20 percent of eligible voters, Stottler has said.


To increase the number of educated voters at the polls, Stottler would have liked to link from the county’s Web site to the Gazette’s biography of each candidate, for example. That’s not allowed because it would mean using government property to influence an election, she said.


Nor could she pass out to voters stickers that would give them discounts at local restaurants or stores.


“A lot of approaches I was prepared to take I couldn’t use,” Stottler said. “According to statutes, anything over $1 is enfranchising voters, which is strictly prohibited.”


As the county clerk, Stottler has a “bucket of information” for voters but feels restricted in how she can share it, she said.


“I can’t influence people to vote or not vote, which just seems messed up to me,” Stottler said.


Stottler serves on Wisconsin County Clerks Association Legislative Committee. She said the time might be ripe to change legislation to fit the lifestyles of modern Americans.


She thinks officials should especially work hard to educate voters about local elections because local politicians approve ordinances and budgets that affect citizens on a daily basis.


“I think it is going to be time to sit down and look at these things (election statutes) if they’re not working to do what we need them to do,” Stottler said. “Local government is the one thing we should be fighting to hang on to over anything.”


While Stottler couldn’t do everything she wanted to increase voter turnout for Tuesday’s election, she thinks she made progress educating voters through local media outlets.


“Educated voters will go to the polls, which was a part of the original program that we had,” Stottler said. “I think we’re going to see some real educated voters to make good, strong decisions for themselves.”


To learn more

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday so Wisconsin residents can elect representatives to local municipal positions such as school boards, city councils, county boards and village boards.


You still have time to learn about the races and the candidates.


To find your polling place:


-- In Rock County, visit www.co.rock.wi.us and click on the county clerk’s page and the “voter information” page.
-- In Walworth County, visit www.co.walworth.wi.us and click on the county clerk’s page and the “elections and voting” page.

Both Web sites also will feature election results information Tuesday night.


To learn about the candidates in your community, visit:


-- gazettextra.com/election to find stories, biographies and pod casts created by Gazette and WCLO reporters.
-- forwardjanesville.com and look for the “Candid-ate Camera” section at the bottom of the home page.
-- lwvjvl.org to read about contested Rock County board races.

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