Objections to turning the Janesville Police Department headquarters into a temporary polling place are understandable from the perspective of the black community. It’s no secret many blacks don’t trust the police, and asking the black community to vote at a police station seems both insensitive and unnecessary, especially if the city has other alternatives.
Negative perceptions about the police are, of course, no reflection on the Janesville Police Department. It has a reputation for acting fairly and working closely with the black community. The African American Liaison Advisory Committee meets regularly at the police station (and in the same room that would be used for voting for the April and August elections, according to Police Chief Dave Moore). That Janesville has managed to avoid a high-profile racial incident is a credit to Moore’s leadership.
Nevertheless, the city council made the right call last week by seeking out other polling place options ahead of a Feb. 26 state deadline. There was likely nothing nefarious behind the proposal to move voting from City Hall to the police station across the street. A remodeling project at City Hall requires the relocation, and the police station’s proximity makes it a tempting choice.
But decision makers should have foreseen groups’ objections, given that the Fourth Ward, where a large portion of Janesville’s black population lives, would be voting there. Leaders from Beloit’s NAACP and the African American Liaison Advisory Committee told council members that voting at the police station could have a “chilling effect,” causing some people to stay home.
It’s no surprise Cathy Myers, a Democrat seeking the 1st Congressional District seat, has latched onto this issue to advance her candidacy, but her concern about disenfranchisement—“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”—is valid.
In a news release, Myers also noted 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 African American Liaison (Advisory) Committee.”
Chief Moore shouldn’t take personally Myers’ or other community members’ concerns, though we can understand how he might feel hurt because he takes pride in his department’s outreach efforts. In an interview with The Gazette, Moore expressed support for using the police station as a polling place, stating it could have a positive effect on race relations.
“I view this as a wonderful opportunity to welcome citizens to the police department in a friendly, non-confrontational manner,” Moore said.
Moore also posed this question, and it’s one for all of Janesville to consider: “If we continue the dialogue that the police are unfair and biased, how will we ever make change?”
His argument is an idealistic one, and we’d support it in an ideal world. But we live in a world tainted by suspicion and misconceptions, and lost votes over a polling location aren’t worth risking.
The simplest way to quell this concern and ensure the integrity of the April and August elections is to pick a different polling place.