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Saturday, May 18, 2024
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Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski photographed on April 3, 2024.

Sarah Godlewski leads charge for ‘digitization,’ recruiting next generation of clerks

Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski said she hopes to revitalize local clerk offices and digitize online records during her time in office.

Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski sits in the basement of the Wisconsin State Capitol building, affectionately known as the “garden level” among her team.

Godlewski is third in line to the Governor’s office and has worked in this role for just under a year. The position has few official responsibilities, including keeping the state seal and preserving public records. 

And while the position has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers — who evicted the former Secretary of State Doug LaFollete from a public-facing office across the street in 2015 — Godlewski said she hopes the office can be a “champion for democracy.” 

One way Godlewski hopes to do that is by revitalizing local clerk’s offices, she told The Daily Cardinal in a sit-down interview.

“Clerks are the cornerstones of their community. They're like the chief operating officer,” Godlewski said. 

From running town hall meetings and elections to handling records and open records requests, clerks work to ensure the government is transparent and accessible, Godlewski said. 

But Wisconsin is confronting a generational shift in clerk positions as Baby Boomers — the name for Americans born from 1946 to 1964 — start retiring, according to Godlewski.

“The role prior to 2016 was very different. And so [Baby Boomers] are leaving because they just don't want to deal with it,” Godlewski said. “And so now more than ever, we have an opportunity to bring the next generation into these clerk career paths. That can really be transformative.”

Until recently, ushering the “next generation” into clerkship positions was difficult, Godlewski said. Restrictions on the Federal Work-Study Program (FWS) — which provides part-time jobs to low income college students — prevented students from working in nonpartisan election roles. 

In April 2022, the U.S. Department of Education lifted this restriction, but questions still remained about how this new standard affected FWS jobs in local government, like working with clerks

Godlewski said she and a bipartisan group of Secretaries of State followed up, calling on the Department of Education in July 2023 to clarify their rule. The department responded in February 2024, allowing students to use FWS funds while working with clerks.  

“In Wisconsin, that's 14,000 students, so we're not talking about a couple thousands dollars or a few students. That could be a real opportunity for life in public service,” Godlewski said.

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Bringing the office into the 21st century

Down the hall in the state’s “vault,” sets of steel shelves hold up thousands of paper records. Godlewski said her and her team are currently digitizing tens of thousands of records like these by scanning and uploading them to their new government website.

It marks her other priority: modernizing the office.

For now, reminders of a paper-filled past decorate Godlewski’s office. Visitors are greeted by a large wooden stamping press built in 1881, which Godlewski and her staff use to authenticate over 15,000 documents per year with the state’s seal. These include pardons, proclamations, international business paperwork and other important documents.

To the right, a collection of antique Blue Books, the state government’s biennial directory, is sealed behind glass. And around the corner, 72 three-ring binders, each representing a county, hold authentication records from county clerks.

Wisconsinites currently looking to authenticate a record, like adoption paperwork, must either travel to Madison or send their paperwork through the mail.

But by the end of the year, Godlewski said she hopes to transition that process online. It’s all part of what Godlewski hopes will be an “Amazon-like” experience for the public.

“We’re creating this state of the art records portal so you’ll be able to access — whether it’s oaths of office or pardons, for example — just trying to make it easy for folks,” Godlewski said.

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Nick Bumgardner

Nick Bumgardner is a staff writer with The Daily Cardinal covering state news and politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @nickbum_.

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