Amid objections from community members to using the Janesville Police Department as a temporary polling place, the city council directed city staff to find an alternate location that would be less objectionable to minority voters.
City Hall is the usual polling location for wards 3 and 4, but renovations planned for March through July will make it undesirable for voting. Staff recommended the council approve a resolution that would move the polling location for the April and August elections to the police building across the street.
Instead, the council voted 5-2 for staff to explore an alternative to prevent possible voter suppression that could stem from the polling location being inside a police station. Council members Sue Conley and Jens Jorgensen voted against the motion.
Going to City Hall to vote is hard enough for black people, but if they’re told they have to go to the police station to vote, it’s going to “freeze people up,” said Lonnie Brigham Jr., African American Liaison Advisory Committee chairman.
“There’s other venues … that would not leave a stigma of some sort of suppression going on in the city,” he said.
“I think that (voting at the police station) could have a chilling effect on the number of people who come out to vote,” said Dorothy Harrell, president of Beloit’s NAACP.
Janesville resident and Democratic congressional candidate Cathy Myers issued a press release urging the council not to use the police department as a polling place.
“Since Scott Walker took office, Wisconsin Republicans have taken away the voice of African American voters through unconstitutional gerrymandering and the strictest voter ID law in the country,” she wrote in the release.
“The Janesville Police Department has made great strides in reaching out to minority communities, thanks in large part to the ongoing dialogue between police and the Janesville African American Liaison (Advisory) Committee. But if a single voter is discouraged from exercising their right to vote due to the location of a polling place, it’s one too many,” she wrote.
Conley agreed with the concerns. She made it clear she believes the police department shouldn’t be a temporary polling place.
“It can be an obstacle for some citizens to enter a police station for any reason, and voting is a right that should not have obstacles,” she said.
Jorgensen praised the progressive nature of Janesville police and said moving the polling place would send the message police don’t have a good relationship with minorities.
“I think this would undo a lot of the work that has been done by the police department by saying ‘We can’t put a polling place there,’” Jorgensen said.
Milton’s police station shares a roof with its city hall, which is a polling place, and there are no issues there, Jorgensen said.
Council President Doug Marklein agreed with Jorgensen. Nationwide, there might be animosity between police and minorities, but that’s not the case in Janesville, he said.
“Where did we start changing the narrative? Are we not feeding the perception one city at a time if we don’t recognize the successes that we’ve had?” Marklein said.
Marklein ultimately voted to look for an alternative, saying it was a step in the right direction, though a needless one.
Conley’s original motion was to change the polling place to somewhere other than the police department. It failed 5-2.
City Clerk/Treasurer Dave Godek said he won’t have much time to find a new polling location. Under Conley’s motion, if staff don’t find an alternative, the polling place would legally have to be City Hall, which will be under construction with asbestos exposure possible.
The police department is within walking distance for voters who live in wards 3 and 4. For those who show up at City Hall to vote, the police station is close by, making it a convenient location, Godek said.
“I think this is the best solution,” he said.
Those concerned about going into a police station to vote can do so via absentee ballot for both the April and August elections, Godek said.
A new polling place would have to meet certain requirements related to parking and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The building’s owner would also have to allow it to be a polling place, Godek said.
City Manager Mark Freitag asked if City Hall’s underground parking garage could be used for voting if it was outfitted with heaters. Godek said it’s possible.
The council will vote on an alternate polling place Feb. 26 to meet a state deadline.