After pushback from the community, a polling place won’t move out of City Hall after all.
The fourth-floor City Hall council chambers, which is a polling place for Wards 3 and 4, will be under renovation during the April and August elections. City Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek recommended temporarily moving the polling place across the street to the police department.
Several residents and representatives of minority-focused groups Monday implored the council not to use the police station as a polling place, claiming it would be a form of voter suppression.
René Bue, the Hedberg Public Library’s programming and outreach coordinator, said the city’s consideration of the police station as a polling place shows it isn’t as welcoming as she’d hoped. The city has created a situation with “unsettling coincidences” to an attempt at voter suppression, she said.
Resident Santo Carfora said the idea to use the police station is “typical white thinking.”
“This is a major microaggression. We never even considered the people being moved because we assumed, as white people, they’d be fine,” Carfora said.
“We don’t have to think about our whiteness. That’s a privilege,” he said.
Resident Al Lembrich said it was ridiculous for people to complain about using the police department as a polling place. “Troubled, mixed-up” people can vote absentee, if they even vote, Lembrich said.
Most who opposed the police department as a polling place commended the Janesville Police Department and Chief Dave Moore for their progressive mindset and work to bridge racial divides.
“My opposition is not against the Janesville Police Department. It is against the unintended outcome of voter suppression that may occur with the move,” said Lonnie Brigham Jr., chairman of the African American Liaison Advisory Committee.
He held up a petition he claimed had more than 1,000 signatures from Wisconsin residents who agree police stations shouldn’t be polling places.
Janesville, once home to the Ku Klux Klan, would “make history by repeating history” if the police station became a polling place, Brigham said.
“It’s time for the few to start hearing the voice of the many,” he said.
Cathy Myers, a Janesville School Board member and Democratic congressional candidate, also opposed using the police department.
“This is an oppressive way to keep people from coming to vote. I think that’s wrong,” said resident Ray Jewell. “I think that this would be a big step backwards.”
Councilman Paul Williams apologized for not immediately seeing a problem with the police station being a polling place. Some minorities in Janesville come from Rockford, Illinois, and Chicago, where they’ve had bad experiences with police, and Williams can’t put himself in their shoes, he said.
Councilwoman Sue Conley said it’s not a black or white issue, but rather one about human rights. Even some white people might be intimidated by voting in a police station, she said.
Conley suggested keeping the polling place at City Hall but moving it to the first floor. Godek said that was an option but that space is limited.
City Manager Mark Freitag said if the polling place moved to the first-floor lobby, the nearby human resources and attorney’s offices would close for the day to accommodate voters.
Before the motion to keep the polling place at City Hall, Councilman Jens Jorgensen spoke in favor of using the police station for voting. If the polling place were moved elsewhere, some voters without reliable transportation might not make it to the new location, which is another form of voter suppression, he said.
“On Election Day, I don’t think the enemy is going to be the police department. It’s going to be confusion,” Jorgensen said. “That’s what I really, really worry about.”
The national media report negative stories about the relationship between police and minorities, but that’s not an issue in Janesville. The Janesville Police Department is “world class” in its progressiveness, Jorgensen said.
“This is a chance to really show how open of a community we really are,” he said.
Conley said her recommendation to keep the polling place at City Hall is a compromise between those who don’t want to vote in a police station and those such as Jorgensen, who worry moving the polling place far from City Hall could confuse voters.
Several speakers recommended Wilson Elementary School as a polling place. Godek said he reached out to the school and never heard back. Other locations Godek considered included the Armory, the Traxler Park warming house and City Hall’s parking garage. After evaluating them, Godek’s recommendation remained the police department.
Other places, such as Janesville’s Central Fire Station, First Presbyterian Church and the Janesville Senior Center, had limited parking or did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so they were not good alternatives.