As Fitchburg voters head to the polls Tuesday, Feb. 18, for local and state primary elections, they’ll be traveling outside their respective districts for the eighth straight election.
Though city leaders considered that a temporary problem when they made the change for the April 2018 election, it’s likely to be at least four more elections before they settle on a solution.
While two potential options have surfaced in the past few months – a nearby church and the return of the previous District 1 polling place to government hands – the city plans to wait until it redraws district lines in 2021 before making any changes to polling places, city administrator Patrick Marsh told the Star on Tuesday Feb. 11.
The unusual problem started when the city closed its King James Way fire station in 2017. Because that building was no longer staffed, meant the District 1 polling place had to be moved, and the replacement for that building, the Marketplace Drive fire station, is east of Verona Road. That made walking difficult for many in that heavily populated area, one of the poorest parts of the city.
The polling places for Districts 2 and 4 are also outside of the district, but aren’t quite so egregious – the Lacy Road fire station building is across the street from the District 2 boundary, and the Fitchburg Community Center, next to City Hall, is close to a heavily populated area in District 4, which spans a significant amount of rural land in the city.
The selected locations were meant to distribute the polling places evenly throughout the city, Marsh said. But he acknowledged the difficulty it can cause some people.
“We don’t want people without transportation or people with mobility issues to have to cross major roadways,” he said. “We’d like to keep something at the old fire station or a church … it was more based on equity and fair distribution throughout the community.”
Then-clerk Patti Anderson had told the Council in October 2017 the polling locations were “temporary” when District 1 Alds. Dorothy Krause and Anne Scott raised concerns that the polling place was inaccessible by walking underneath Verona Road or crossing McKee.
Marsh said there have been a lot of concerns regarding the location of District 1’s polling location being located across a major thoroughfare and how difficult it is to access.
One possible solution is the building that caused the problem in the first place. Dane County bought the former King James Way fire station last month and plans to reopen it in 2021 as its Emergency Operations Center.
Another option could be Redeemer City Church, located on King James Way, Marsh said. He noted that leadership at the church expressed interest in becoming a polling place even before fully moving into its current location, because of how isolated from services the neighborhood west of Verona Road is.
Either way, Marsh said the current polling places will be in effect throughout 2020 and parts of 2021, as the city expects to have U.S. Census data back mid-year 2021.
After the census data is received, Marsh said, the city will start the redistricting process. Part of that process will take into consideration the population increase from the October 2022 Town of Madison dissolvement.
Marsh said the city is listening to the feedback and will use it to make equitable decisions.
“We don’t want any barriers for elections,” he said. “We’re hoping by 2022 we’ll have the redistricting done and we’ll have all these locked in.”