The Leader behind the Campus Leaders

by Tracy Ellingson

Denise Tolbert rushed through the doors of the Campus Involvement Center in a blur, flashing her trademark ear-to-ear grin.
“I can’t forget the banner,” Tolbert repeated to herself as she zipped to the back of the office and hoisted an oversized, rolled-up election banner onto her shoulder.
Tolbert had stopped by the office Friday in the middle of her jam-packed work day, taking time out from her job as a policy aide to Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. The days are extra busy this time of year thanks to her second job as adviser for the University’s All-Campus Election Commission.
But while Tolbert handles her busy schedule with a smile, she takes her job with the commission very seriously.
And with elections less than two weeks away, the commission, which is made up of Tolbert and 10 students, is gearing up for the most hectic time of the campaign season.
“During the week of elections I literally take vacation (from work) and the commissioners take off from work, school, whatever, and they’re mine for a week,” Tolbert said. “I work them. That’s why I never get any returnees. They do it one year and that’s it.”
Tolbert’s group runs the University’s campus elections for 11 organizations, including the Student Senate and the Minnesota Student Association, making sure that the campaigns and balloting are run fairly and correctly.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Tolbert joined the army right out of high school at age 17. Four years of active duty in Germany and at Fort Bragg, N.C., Tolbert said, helped develop and define a sense of leadership that she carries into her everyday life and at the University.
“I believe a true leader does what’s right, not just what the group wants in order to save face, because you’re just betraying yourself. And I’ve always tried to instill that in others, that you’ve got to understand that being a leader is often times standing alone, especially in the face of criticism.”
Tolbert came to the University in 1990, double majoring in history and political science. During her time on campus, she found her niche as a leader by becoming a member of the Student Senate, the elections commission and MSA.
After graduating in 1995, Tolbert went to work for Sayles Belton but maintained her ties to the University as a member of the Alumni Association and as a mentor for various campus organizations, including the election commission. “I think this is a good mentorship opportunity for me. This year I am singularly impressed with my commission.”
And the feeling seems to be mutual.
“Denise knows so much and has so much history with the organization,” said Kristen Burke, this year’s commission chairwoman. “She is so interested and very concerned with how things turn out. She is very much an adviser.”
Commission member Marc Richards said there is no room for slacking off when working for Tolbert. “Denise rides you to do things until you get it done,” Richards said. “You have to challenge yourself to get done with what you need to get done.”
Richards, who is graduating this year, said he probably wouldn’t have returned if he could. “There are pros and cons (of being a commissioner). It takes a lot of work, a lot of time out of your days.”
During election week, commissioners station themselves in a temporary office, which Tolbert has dubbed “the war room,” in Coffman Memorial Union. The war room gives the commissioners space to count the ballots and make sure that everything is running smoothly and fairly.
“My responsibility is to ensure that elections are being conducted in a legitimate fashion, that … all those elections are legitimate and that they are secured and ensured as a valid election.”
Although campus elections at this and other universities are notorious for producing a relatively small voter turnout, Tolbert said getting students out to vote is not in her job description. She said that is the responsibility of the candidates and the organizations electing new officers.
But even though voter turnout lies outside the commission’s range of responsibility, she said she wants to make sure as many students as possible can easily access the polls.
“I want to explore the possibility of putting (the elections) fully online because I do want to put myself out of a job,” said Tolbert, who added that allowing students to vote via their e-mail accounts would promote a much higher turnout, and simpler means by which students can vote.
“This summer we’re going to look at our options for putting elections online. ACEC, by proposing this idea, is committed to trying to provide as much access while at the same time trying to ensure the legitimacy of the election,” she said.
The University could set a precedent with electronic elections, Tolbert said, because she does not know of any other school that provides online elections. Another advantage of putting the system online would be to eliminate some of the problems that occurred in recent years with students double voting or voting when they were not eligible to do so.
Last year, the commission reported a higher voter turnout with 13 percent of the student body voting at any of the 10 polling stations around campus. But, although the numerous stations made voting more convenient for students, the commission had to throw out the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group election because about 450 students voted twice or weren’t eligible because they didn’t pay MPIRG fees.
To help prevent the same thing from happening this year, polls will be monitored more closely by requiring students to vote at specific polling locations, depending on their college of enrollment.
“That will impact voter turnout,” Tolbert said. “I don’t know how (much). I don’t think it will be low.”
Although the composition of the commission changes every year, Tolbert said she will definitely be back next year to work for an online election and to enjoy what she considers the most rewarding part of her job — election day.
“I like it when this campus is energized by an issue, or by a candidate or by a concern,” Tolbert said. “I just love it.”