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I have served as an election judge off and on since 1996. What is an election judge? The guy (or gal) in charge of a polling place. The judge runs a team of four to 12 election workers who operate a polling place where you vote. I like to think of the election workers as the first line of defense for representative government. Without election workers, you do not have polling places. Without honest election workers, you do not have honest elections.
There are three types of workers at a polling place: a judge, an assistant judge, and two to ten clerks (typically two to six). The judge runs the place, the assistant judge serves as the deputy, and the clerks actually certify the voters and hand out and collect the ballots (though, in most cases today, they hand out the code to allow the voter to cast a vote at an electronic machine).
What do you have to do to become an election judge? Typically, have served as an election clerk. How do you become a clerk? The first step is to join a political party.
Elections are typically run by the your county clerk’s office. In days gone by the clerk was the one putting together the polling place teams and… choosing workers exclusively from their own party. (It is a great way to ensure you get reelected.) Some states may still run their elections this way. Most have some law requiring the two biggest parties to nominate a slate of workers.
Texas (my state) works that way. The party which got the most votes for governor in a precinct typically names the election judge, while the party which got the second-most votes names the assistant judge, and the two parties split the clerks between them. Each polling place has a set of election workers split between Republicans and Democrats. (At least that is the way it is supposed to work and the way it works in counties with Republican county clerks. In some Democrat counties, only the assistant judge is a Republican, while the judge names all other election workers.
Think this is crazy? It is not. Cheating requires the collusion of all election workers. By putting Democrats and Republicans together, keeping an eye on each other, it is a lot harder to cheat. (The first election year after Texas required workers to be split between the two parties was the first one where the Republicans swept the statewide races. It seems a lot of deep blue counties in South Texas and East Texas went from 95 percent Democrat votes to 65 to 70 percent Democrats. Just coincidence, I am sure.)
After you’ve joined a political party, call up a party and say you want to be an election worker. They will put you on the list. (They are generally desperate for workers.) Serve as a clerk a few times to see how it works. Do a good job as a clerk and you will be asked to be a judge. Most (I hope) counties offer training on both positions. (My county does as did the county I formerly lived in.) The county clerk’s office will contact you and let you sign up for a training session. If you are going to work an election, I recommend signing up.
What does the judge do? Everything. Your first responsibility is to get a team together. You have to round up the clerks for your party. Don’t panic because the county clerk’s office and your party will have a list of names for you to draw on. Start early or those other judges will steal the best folks first.
Also contact the assistant judge. Get their list of workers, give the assistant judge the time to show up, and also let them know when you are going to check out the polling place. Get the assistant judge to come, if you can.
Next, check out your polling place, and do it several weeks before the election. Make sure whoever runs the building where the voting takes place knows you are going to be there, and when. Check the space allocated to make sure it will work. (Incidentally if it is in a middle school cafeteria, be aware it will make a boiler factory sound quiet during mealtimes. You might want to bring hearing protection. Earplugs designed for shooting work well because they filter out high decibel sounds, while allowing conversations to be heard.)
The weekend before Election Day, contact all your workers. Remind them of when and where they are supposed to be. Someone will be sick or have a family emergency. (Happens every time.) This is when you discover who will be missing. Contact the clerks’ office on Monday to see if you can get a replacement.
On Election Day, show up early. It takes an hour to set up and open the polls. Be there thirty minutes before that hour. Have your cell phone with you with the clerks’ office and the building contact on speed dial. You will need it.
Key to being a successful election judge: delegation. You cannot do everything. Your job is to handle exceptions. Once your workers show up have them set up the equipment. Help anyone who gets stuck, but do not take over their job. If you have experienced clerks, get them to help the rookies. The goal is to get the polls open by the legally mandated time. Best way to do that is have it ready to open 15 minutes before that. As problems arise, fix them. If you cannot, call the clerk’s office for help, and call before you get totally jammed. (If you are running low on ballots, call before they run out – not after issuing the last one.)
Before the polls open, get your workers together and give them the following speech. “You are not getting paid to get yelled at or be treated rudely by voters. That is my job. If anyone gives you any problems, tell them I will deal with it and send them to me. Be polite to everyone and, when someone gets rude, smile and send them to me.” Seriously. You are getting paid to handle the problems. (It is probably not enough, but it is your job.) If your workers know you have their back they will do a better job.
Once the polls open you deal with exceptions. All. Day. Long. Someone does not have ID? You handle that. Someone have a valid voter registration card but is not on the voter rolls? You deal with it. A politician inside the distance boundary? You deal with it. Someone using a cell phone in the polling place? (Not allowed in Texas.) It is yours. Someone trying to “assist” someone else vote without the help being desired? You guessed – you deal with it.
During that time, look after your people. Make sure they get a lunch break. (I normally bring in coffee and kolaches in the morning. A well-fed crew is a happy crew.) Give them time to step outside occasionally. Make sure they are not getting hassled.
Don’t panic. There is lots of help available. The county clerk’s office is a phone call away. If you do not know what to do, give them a call. In Texas, an election judge ranks with a circuit court judge on Election Day. That means if you need the law, you can call them in, and they will show up. Once I had a traffic problem outside my polling place. A call to the police department got an officer out there to control traffic. (My secret dream is having Hillary Clinton show up at my polling place, campaign within the distance marker, refuse to leave, and getting hauled off when I call the cops to remove her.)
Finally, when the day ends, you oversee the shutdown of the polls. In Texas, anyone in line when the polls close gets to vote. You cannot shut down until the last person in line has voted. Bring them inside and lock the doors. If the line is really long and you are needed inside, make a sign which reads “last voter” and give it to the last person in line with instructions to tell anyone who arrives after that they are too late.
Once the last person has voted, have your workers close the polls, and pack up everything. You may be required to take the equipment to the county courthouse, justice center, or wherever the votes are collected, but you will definitely be charged with taking the ballot box. Do not pass go, do not stop for a burger, and definitely do not go home and go to bed yet. Drive directly to the collection point. Moreover, invite your assistant judge to join you. They can either ride with you or caravan behind you. Doing this assures you do not have “magic” ballot boxes which appear a day or two later to change an election outcome, and allow your assistant judge the same assurance.
Once you have checked in your ballot box, go home and crash. You will need to. It is probably the end of a 16-hour day.
Is it worth it? I think so. A US citizen has three unique responsibilities: to defend the country when called upon, to serve on juries, and to vote. (Paying taxes does not count as a responsibility; it is a legal duty and one that applies to non-citizens as well) I am past the age when I will be called upon to defend my country and am generally eliminated from serving on juries. (Defense attorneys do not like victims of violent crimes on criminal juries, and plaintiff’s attorneys look askance at engineers on civil juries.) But I can help my fellow citizens vote.
It is also a great way to ensure vote fraud does not occur. Every year, I have friends sign up to be poll watchers. Poll watchers only watch. They cannot stop vote fraud. Poll workers can. What is more, you get paid. Not much, but getting paid beats not getting paid.
August and September is the season for recruiting election workers. Think about stepping up to serving as an election worker this November.