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Champion of the Clerks
Times photo: Anthony Wahl Green County Clerk Mike Doyle, pictured above seated inside Monroes Historic Courthouse, is pushing back against increased requests for documentation and regulation in the states election and voter registration system.
MONROE - Cue the tune of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town": We have a list and we're checking it twice, gonna find out who's voted and who hasn't.

Registered voters across the state received a letter in early June from the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund, a Democrat-backed political advocacy group.

"Dear Registered Voter," it begins, "Who votes is public record. Why do so many fail to vote?"

At the bottom of the letter is a list of about a dozen of the voter's neighbors, their addresses and recent voting history. "After the June 5 election, public records will tell everyone who voted and who didn't. Do your civic duty," the letter urges, "Vote and remind your neighbors to vote."

Madison political blogger Ann Althouse called the letter "incredibly creepy" and decried efforts to shame and pressure non-voters as "truly despicable."

For Mike Doyle, Green County clerk, the letter was just another indication that a public service he helps provide - upkeep of election records and a registered voter database - is turning politicized and increasingly burdening his office with unwieldy duties as state and federal laws pile on more requests for documentation.

The recall elections this spring, combined with more demands for information, have brought the issue to a head.

"Somebody has to push back," he said.


This summer, he helped lead an effort by county clerks across the state to do just that. He and Manitowoc County Clerk Jamie Aulik surveyed Wisconsin's 72 county clerks to see if they were facing the same frustrations.

"Thirty-two got back to me within an hour and a half," he said. In all, 52 of the 72 county clerks responded. Their comments overwhelmingly echo Doyle's concerns:

Adams County: "It's much more than we bargained for."

Ashland County: "I think the state should be doing more and not coming up with different services that we have to provide."

Burnett County: "This has grown far beyond the expectation ever known."

Fond du Lac County: "Working LONGER days and weekends. Basically no family life!"

On July 23, the Wisconsin County Clerks Association sent a letter to the Government Accountability Board (GAB), the state agency that oversees elections.

The association wrote that it was "united in its belief" that the clerks' roles as providers in the State Voter Registration System "must be reevaluated." It pleaded for lawmakers to consult with clerks before mandating more election regulations.

Earlier in August, Doyle met with GAB representatives in Madison to discuss his concerns.

"I talked with them for two and a half hours. I don't think I accomplished anything," he told the Green County Board of Supervisors last week, then he joked, "but I think I punished them for two and a half hours."


Understanding why clerks are frustrated requires a short lesson in recent election history. The contested presidential election of 2000 and the mess it created in Florida - remember "hanging chads"? - led to the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002. Mandates included the replacement of punchcard and lever voting machines and the establishment of computerized, standardized databases of registered voters.

In 2005, Wisconsin implemented a database system for county and municipal clerks to use to keep track of voters.

The system is essentially a "good thing," Doyle said, but since 2005, clerks are being asked to do more and more, such as documenting every step in the processing of military and oversees absentee ballots and calculating the cost of each election.

This request for clerks to calculate the cost of the recall elections originated in a request to GAB from Rep. Robin Vos (R- Rochester).

Twenty years ago, the Election Day Manual for Wisconsin Election Officials was a slim 33-page booklet; in 2006, it grew to 91 pages; by 2011, it had increased to a novel-esque 205 pages.

Like many county clerks across the state, Doyle's office has taken on the bulk of this work for his municipal clerks because he says some don't have access to high-speed Internet, many are already overworked and none have the proper training to navigate the increasingly complex system.

Pile on more tasks, he said, and his municipal clerks may quit or be working the equivalent of minimum wage.


The upshot of the voter registration system is that election records are easier to access and offer more information - and both Democrats and Republicans are recognizing the political value.

"I think people have realized how powerful a tool it is and they want more and more," said Judge David Deininger, chair of GAB and a Monroe resident.

Doyle is blunter: "They keep on adding extra responsibilities. Some are done for political reasons."

Back in the 1980s and 1990s when Deininger was a candidate in elections, the only way he could access a list of registered voters was to go around to two dozen municipalities and request the records from past elections. Some were handwritten, some automated.

Deininger says the new centralized system is a better way to handle records but agrees with Doyle that it comes with added responsibility and sometimes too much.

"Just keeping the record up-to-date and accurate is a task of some magnitude," Deininger said. Requests added to the system in recent years - such as the federal mandate to document the processing of military and oversees absentee ballots - are pushing the limit, he added. When you add up the reasonable requests, "the sum total becomes unreasonable."

A few days after Doyle visited with GAB staff, director Kevin Kennedy sent him a formal letter to thank him for his time. The letter concludes that "addressing these issues is a shared responsibility."

Doyle is not heartened by the response.

Deininger is sympathetic to the requests of Doyle and other county clerks. He calls the issue a "statewide problem." GAB can only do so much, he added, since it must follow federal laws.

"I very much appreciate the fact that Mike has brought these matters to GAB. It was really doing us a good service," he said. "I think the message that we've gotten loud and clear is, 'Don't add any more burdens.'"

Doyle says his office is currently able to keep up with mandates, but barely.

"I just don't want any more," he said.

That's one reason he opposes Wisconsin's Voter ID Law, which requires a person to present a photo ID in order to vote. The law is currently upheld in court, though Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is fighting to reinstate it by the November election.

Doyle views voter ID requirements as yet another political ploy to micromanage a system that "doesn't need to be micromanaged."

"Voting is a simple thing," he said. "It's not rocket science."