Ask An Expert: Being an Election Judge

 

polling_placeI 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.)

pollingplaceAfter 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.)

e-slateBefore 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.

There are 16 comments.

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  1. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Interesting!

    Sounds like a great experience on several levels.

    Seawriter: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.

    Smart.

    • #1
  2. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Thank you for sharing, and thanks for doing it.

    • #2
  3. Pencilvania Inactive
    Pencilvania
    @Pencilvania

    Excellent. And thank you for discharging this crucial duty, SW!

    • #3
  4. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Seawriter: (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.)

    No way!

    • #4
  5. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Seawriter: 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.

    My sister worked as an election judge in Chicago. She was the token Republican judge at our local polling place, she was looking for extra work at the time.  She was picked by our local Democratic precinct captain, Johnny.  John had a nominal city job as bridge tender on the Western Ave bridge over the Chicago River.  Easy work because the lift motors for the bridge had been removed in 1942 to go to a shipyard in Washington State for the war effort.  So Johnny’s real job was ensuring people voted the correct way in the Democratic Primary ( the general election didn’t really matter as it was a lock).  My parents were secret Republicans, but because they owned an apartment building did not dare let anyone , especially Johnny know. It would have meant an end to trash pickup and a parade of building inspectors ( Chicago had the most stringent building codes in the US it ensured no building could pass a code inspection if they didn’t want it to). Johnny would come over, tell my parents how he wanted them to vote in the primary and my parents would shake their heads in agreement, take voter guides, and then vote the opposite,  having lived in both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany helped.

    My sister would come home after election day and tell us all the amazing things that would happen at the polling place.  The voting machines would have hundreds of votes recorded on them before they opened.  Johnny would accompany voters into the machine behind the curtain and “help them” vote.  The first year she started to raise a stink, and was taken aside and basically told the deal “shut up, you didn’t see anything”.  And if she wanted to continue on the gig she would do just that.

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    About 35 years ago I was a lowly clerk at a polling place. It was a very long day. But you’ve inspired me to consider doing that again, or even being a judge. It is certainly a worthy job to do! Thanks, Seawriter.

    • #6
  7. Acook Member
    Acook
    @Acook

    I tried to volunteer to be an election clerk but they had no part time shifts; you had to work the whole 12 hour day or nothing. I wasn’t sure I was up for that, so I declined. Is that typical? Reason?

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Acook:I tried to volunteer to be an election clerk but they had no part time shifts; you had to work the whole 12 hour day or nothing. I wasn’t sure I was up for that, so I declined. Is that typical? Reason?

    It is typical.  Part of the reason is it is difficult for the election judge to arrange part-time workers. There is a strict limit on the number of workers at a polling place. If you have significant overlap it can cause problems with the county and with the state election commission. (You end up with more workers than you should.) You also cannot have a judge work part of the day. A single individual is responsible for the polling place.

    That is not to say you cannot do it, but you need to have two people willing to split at the right time (cannot have two half-day workers in the morning and none in the afternoon for example). I have done it occasionally, but it is a real hassle, especially if the second person shows up late.  Then you end up short.

    Sometimes you have to. One time one poll worker did not show up.  (She went to the wrong polling place, they were short handed, and she was bilingual, so they poached her.) Then a second clerk got sick. Down two poll workers I called the County Clerk, and they found one replacement, so I was only down one.

    Seawriter

    • #8
  9. Grosseteste Thatcher
    Grosseteste
    @Grosseteste

    Thank you for this!  I still worry about all of the poorly (or deceptively) run precincts being run by Democrats?  What recourse does an assistant judge have in the case of shenanigans approved by the judge?

    • #9
  10. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Grosseteste: What recourse does an assistant judge have in the case of shenanigans approved by the judge?

    Write them down and report them to the state election commission.

    Seawriter

    • #10
  11. Nancy Inactive
    Nancy
    @Nancy

    My father was an election judge several times.  One time he was short handed, and told me on Friday that I needed to come on Tuesday to help.  My father never asked for things he didn’t need, so I told my boss I was taking a day of vacation and on Tuesday I was a clerk.  I showed up just before 7 AM, took half an hour for lunch and to go to my precinct and vote, and left about 8:45 PM after we counted the ballots.  My dad had left home at 6 AM and got back home after 9:30 PM, with no breaks.  I was so tired!  I was in my 40’s and Dad was in his 70’s.  At least he didn’t have to go to work the next day but I don’t know how he did it.  Most of the poll workers I have seen have traditionally been about 70, but I am beginning to see young ones–late teens or twenties.  I figure they must be getting credit for school somehow.

    • #11
  12. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Nancy: Most of the poll workers I have seen have traditionally been about 70, but I am beginning to see young ones–late teens or twenties. I figure they must be getting credit for school somehow.

    My sons all worked as clerks at some point after they became old enough to vote. I sold it as civics credit. (We homeschooled.)

    Seawriter

    • #12
  13. EB Thatcher
    EB
    @EB

    I was an election judge in Texas twice, once for a primary and once for the general election.  We lived in Addison, which is a small town completely surrounded by Dallas. It was small enough that we only had two polling precincts.

    During the primary, because there were so few Democrats in Addison, the local Democratic party decided to only provide staff for one polling place. The Republicans staffed both places.  My precinct was the one that was solely Republican.  We had Democrats showing up to their normal precinct to vote and we had to tell them that they had to go to the other site.

    So the conversations went something like this – “No really, it’s not a joke.  No really, it’s not a Republican plot.  No really, the Democrats made the decision to only have one polling location for the primary.  No really………”

    We got some very skeptical and some rather dirty looks.

    • #13
  14. Snirtler Inactive
    Snirtler
    @Snirtler

    < double post >

    • #14
  15. Snirtler Inactive
    Snirtler
    @Snirtler

    Excellent post. And may your no-longer-secret dream come true.

    • #15
  16. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    I have always enjoyed a voting episode from decades ago (California, paper ballots collected in a cardboard box) when I was the first person to vote at the precinct. I was instructed to inspect the inside of the empty ballot box to ensure it was empty, then watch as the precinct worker closed and sealed it, and sign across the seal. I enjoyed that little part I played in ensuring a fair election.

    • #16

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