Milwaukee County Board Wants to Put Non-Binding Referenda on Ballot

Jul 23, 2014

Milwaukee County residents could weigh in on a number of topics in November

Thousands of Wisconsin voters will find referenda on their ballots in November, including in Milwaukee.

County supervisors here want voters to weigh in on a number of issues. The results will be advisory. Organizers want Milwaukee voices to be heard in Madison and Washington, while opponents say the ballot questions are a waste of money.

Many Milwaukee County voters are no strangers to advisory referenda. For instance, in 2008, residents voted in favor of a small boost in the local sales tax to support transit, parks and paramedics. The issue went nowhere. Supervisor Mark Borkowski says, this time, there could be a list of questions on the ballot.

“We have a minimum of four, maybe five,” Borkowski says.

Right now, there’s only one for certain. It’ll ask voters if they favor amending the U.S. Constitution, to establish that only people, and not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights. Borkowski says the question is misplaced.

“You know you start getting into federal issues. Hello, we’re Milwaukee County government. We’re like Double-A baseball, we’re small fries,” Borkowski says.

Borkowski opposes four other potential advisory referenda as well. One would ask voters whether the state should accept federal Medicaid dollars to expand the program. Another, whether the county executive position should be replaced with an appointed administrator. A third, do residents want their tax money going toward a new Milwaukee Bucks’ arena, and finally, do voters think the minimum wage should be raised to $10.10 an hour.

“There’s absolutely no political will be it at the federal level or be it at the state level to act on these referendum questions. It’s a feel good exercise,” Borkowski says.

Borkowski says besides, Milwaukee County lawmakers know how voters will respond, so putting the questions on the ballot is a waste of time. Fellow Supervisor Khalif Rainey disagrees. He says the point of advisory referenda is to give voters a voice in government. Rainey submitted the question about the minimum wage.

“Milwaukee County being the biggest county in the state of Wisconsin and having a large population of individuals who would be impacted by such an increase in wages, it’s important that we be on the record on this issue,” Rainey says.

Might there be another reason some interests want questions on the ballot this November? The biggest race is for governor.

Lewis Friedland says one strategy could be to inspire more people to vote. Friedland is a journalism professor at UW-Madison.

“Short answer is yes, referenda can affect who turns out to the polls, mostly at the margins although sometimes they can strike a cord and motivate one side or another,” Friedland says.

Friedland doesn’t want to guess which party would benefit by the questions the County Board is considering. City of Milwaukee voters tend to lean left, while many suburbs bend right.

“In this election, we’re going to see both sides so highly motivated that it’s possible that a higher turnout election maybe a wash,” Friedland says.  

The cost of elections goes up, thousands of dollars, with each referendum. The county has to pay for that portion of the ballot, according to Milwaukee County Election Commissioner Joe Czarnezki.

Later this month, supervisors will vote on whether to include additional questions.