Know Your Madisonian: Enlisting volunteers to help people get IDs to vote

November 3, 2018

Julia Gilden was fired up after finishing her group’s biggest effort yet to make sure Madison residents can vote on Tuesday.

Gilden has helped coordinate volunteer efforts for the All Voting is Local campaign, which seeks to ensure all Wisconsinites can comply with the state’s requirement to show a photo ID so they can vote.

Gilden, 36, is a scientist at the Fitchburg biotech firm Promega Corp., and has a 3-year-old daughter. In her spare time, she works with the state director for All Voting is Local, attorney Molly McGrath, on its efforts in the Madison area.

As much time as Gilden already has invested in the effort, she said the election seems to be approaching too quickly.

“There’s been a lot of momentum, people coming out of the woodwork,” Gilden said. “I wish I had more time to harness that!”

In Madison, Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities, the campaign has enlisted volunteers to go door-to-door, mostly in low-income neighborhoods with a larger share of voters who could struggle to comply with the ID requirement. Voter turnout data also are used to target neighborhoods that saw significant turnout drops in the 2016 election.

The volunteers ask voters if they have the ID they need to vote, and if not, they steer them to someone who can help them get one.

With a team of 26 volunteers — more than twice the typical number — on Sunday, the canvassers were able to hit about 1,100 doors in several Madison neighborhoods, their biggest canvass yet, Gilden said.

What did you and your volunteers hear from residents going door-to-door last weekend?

We get a lot of positivity at the doors, even when you’re talking to people who don’t need help. I’ve gotten a lot of high fives and fist bumps and like, “Thank you for doing this.”

Most of what we’re doing is giving people information. (If they don’t have an ID), we take their information and have someone get back to them. Most of the time, we’re going to be able to get people an ID — but sometimes it takes a lot.

Has any aspect of this surprised you?

I’ve been surprised by the number of people who want to be involved in this effort, the number of volunteers.

I think people are having a good experience and seeing that it’s important. We’re at a real turning point for voting rights in this country.

What motivates you to do this?

I already had a full life. I have a kid and a job and I have other interests, believe it or not. (laughs)

I think about my maternal grandmother who was an engaged citizen and really had a life of service. (In the 1950s she helped) established a sewer district. They lived near a lake and everybody’s sewage was just dumping into the lake. At the time she had four kids under 10, one of whom was terminally ill.

She was a just a person who felt like people have a responsibility in their community, especially people who have a lot of privilege. She would not have used that word — she called it “dumb luck.”

I think a lot about the time she spent on that project. It was part of her having a whole life.

What are the longer term goals of this effort you’re helping lead?

What we’d like to see is a bigger expansion of voting rights in Wisconsin. That means eliminating the voter ID law; it means automatic voter registration; it means ending gerrymandering.

What we’re doing is really tangible. I’ve come to really enjoy the humanity of that.

— Interview by

Mark Sommerhauser