Empowering Voters

It is sad to watch so many politicians try to disenfranchise voters. Until today, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was doing his best to avoid calling special elections to fill two legislative seats which became vacant when he appointed those legislators to state jobs. Despite a clear obligation to call special elections for both seats months ago, he only did so after 3 judges, including one on the Court of Appeals ordered him to call the special election by Noon today. Indeed, yesterday Court of Appeals Judge Paul F. Reilly issued a harsh decision in which he stated:

Representative government and the election of our representatives are never ‘unnecessary,’ never a ‘waste of taxpayer resources,’ and the calling of the special elections are as the Governor acknowledges, his ‘obligation’ to follow.

While this should have been obvious to Governor Walker, his initial refusal to call a special election fits with his strategy to disempower voters by making voting more difficult, including reducing the time for early voting, and requiring voter ID at the polls. Curiously, however, Wisconsin still continues to make voting easier by allowing for same day voter registration at the polls. Less well known is a statutory requirement which requires City Clerks to send Special Voting Deputies to assisted living facilities to help residents cast absentee ballots before each election so they do not have to go to the polls.

20180327_122707

In 2012, I decided to become an election official and work at the polls, upon learning that the best way to empower voters is to make sure that qualified people work at the polls to ensure that all eligible voters who come to vote, are able to vote. This year, I agreed to become a Special Voting Deputy, and I am glad to report that in doing so, along with all the other people who join me in doing this work, we are empowering many people who would not be able to get to the polls, or even fill out an absentee ballot on their own, to cast their vote.

I have now helped voters in a variety of assisted living facilities. Some residents were quite mobile and came to the room where we set up an impromptu voting station and needed very little assistance. However, many residents were unable to read the ballot, so we read it to them. Others were too frail to fill in the ballot themselves, so we did so for them.

Some readers may wonder about the possibility of voter fraud when some of these voters need this extra assistance. However, we have a variety of protective procedures in place to make sure that cannot happen. We always have two Special Voting Deputies with the ballots and with each voter. If we read the ballot to the voter or fill it ballot in, we must sign the ballot stating that we did so. We also count all ballot multiple times to make sure that no ballots are missing. In addition, all Special Voting Deputies are trained by the City Clerk’s office before each election.

Perhaps the most challenging question is whether some of these voters are competent to vote. However, unless a voter has had his or her right to vote removed by a judge who found them incompetent to vote, these assisted living facility resident voters have the same right to vote as anyone else. Since we do not give competency tests to any other voters, why should we give them to those who happen to need extra care in an assisted living facility?

Sometimes, however, these voters will decline to vote because they do not feel they know enough to cast their ballot in a way that makes them feel comfortable. For this reason, we go to each facility twice, as some voters just need a little extra time to study the candidates and questions on the ballot. Yet, even on the second visit, some people choose not to vote. But if they do so, it will be their choice, not because some politicians disempowered them.

Many of these voters are elderly and have proudly voted in every single election since they became eligible to vote. For some of them, the possibility that they might not vote in an election is truly daunting, which is why we provide this extra assistance. We also remind them that they can choose not to vote in some races that they may not know enough about, just like any other voter.

My work as a Special Voting Deputy reminds me that when a democracy wants to empower voters, it knows how to do so. My hope is that we will elect more legislators who understand that democracy is best served when we empower everyone who is eligible to cast a vote, to do so.

_____________________________________________________________

For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Advertisements

Doing the Right Thing

Twenty-six years ago I was fired from my job as Wisconsin’s first legal counsel to the Board on Aging and Long Term Care for blowing the whistle on the Executive Director, who was a high functioning alcoholic, but had previously succeeded in insulating himself from evaluation by the Board. After lobbying Congress to require that state long-term care ombudsman programs have legal counsel, I successfully obtained what had appeared to be a dream job, advocating for people living in institutions and receiving long term care, by providing legal counsel to a great team of ombudsmen, and representing victims of abuse and neglect. Little did I know that my dream job would only last nine months.

Before I took the job, I knew the Executive Director. He was very friendly, but had a reputation of being somewhat lazy. Since I am a very independent worker, I did not think it would bother me to have a lazy supervisor. Indeed, my first few months were highly productive. However, staff started approaching me with concerns, and I soon realized that the director’s apparent laziness, which included often not showing up for critical hearings or meetings, was really a symptom of serious alcoholism. It became apparent that the director frequently lied about his whereabouts to cover for his drinking.

Since I was legal counsel to the agency, I sought advice from the State Department of Justice, and on their advice, I proceeded to gather first person evaluations from staff to provide to the Board, whom I discovered had never evaluated the director. I knew I was taking a risk, but I simply could not stand idly by while the director’s alcoholism degraded this state agency, resulting in inadequate protection for the people in institutions and those receiving long-term care, whom we were statutorily required to serve.

After completing my investigation, I provided all the first person information I had obtained to the Board, and then I waited. All of a sudden, a veil of silence dropped down and the Board no longer communicated with me. Fortunately, to protect myself, I retained my own legal counsel and filed a whistleblower complaint with the State Personnel Commission in case of retaliation.

whistleblower8

At this point, the Board had one of its regular meetings over the weekend, and since staff were prohibited from meeting with the Board without the director’s permission (one of his self-protective maneuvers), I went into the office on Monday not knowing what might happen. The director  rarely called staff meetings, but he called staff in to tell us that he had tendered his resignation to the Board. However, the director told us that the Board refused to accept his resignation, conditional on his going into rehab. I vividly remember putting my hand on his hand and telling him that I knew this must be very difficult for him, and that I would be glad to do whatever he needed to help manage the agency while he was in rehab.

The week proceeded and the director did not announce when he was going into rehab. Nor did he tell any staff how the agency would operate in his absence. However, on Friday, he asked me to write a memo to him summarizing my cases (something he had not previously done), then he called me into his office and fired me.

It did not take long for me to obtain what was the largest whistleblower settlement in Wisconsin history, but that was small compensation for losing what I thought was going to be a dream job. Fortunately, this firing did not derail my career, and I am proud of what I have accomplished since that time.

Why am I writing about this ancient history today? One of the consequences of living in a small city, is that I regularly bump into people I know in public places. This morning, while doing some grocery shopping, I saw the man who fired me 26 years ago. We made eye contact, said nothing to each other, and proceeded to continue our shopping. This is not the first time I have seen him since he fired me, and each time I see him, I wonder if he will ever have the courage to thank me for saving his life, as he did go into rehab after firing me, and I believe he has stopped drinking. Of course, I also wonder if he will ever have the courage to apologize for firing me. However, just like the handful of other times I have seen him in public, he said nothing.

So, the awkward moment passed, and I must simply take comfort in knowing that I did the right thing and that is all the thanks I will ever receive. He must live with his own behavior. I remain proud of my own. Due to my personal experience, I have a great deal of respect for all the brave whistleblowers out there who risk their careers and livelihood when they expose a superior’s malfeasance. Most will never receive thanks for their important work, so like me, I hope they are able to remain proud of the good work they have done.

_____________________________________________________________

For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.