Elections: you be the judge

According to today’s Washington Post, some 30 million people have voted early in the 30 states that offer this option.  Maryland doesn’t (though voters today may decide to amend the state constitution and permit early voting next time), meaning that 3 million or so in my state are eligible to vote today, including 540,000 just in my county.

I’ve seen many discussions about problems at the polls, but little about the people who staff polling places.  These folks in Maryland aren’t called precinct workers; they’re election judges — and they’re all volunteers.  Though I didn’t volunteer this year, I’ve worked elections and primaries in years past, twice as chief judge (one of the two people in charge of a voting precinct).

Blogs and opinion columns have run paeans to the process of voting, which in recent elections has meant the process of waiting in line.  I do see value in voters taking time to collectively express their opinions, volunteers guiding the process, no armed guards or oppressive government presence.  I also see obstacles, not the least of which is holding an election on a work day.  Your employer may, as some do, allow two hours off to vote, but if you live in Maryland and work in Virginia, you could spend the entire two hours in transit.

This could be you.Few of those commentators have worked at a polling place.  Until the politicians who control the process decide to improve it, in my opinion it’s the volunteers who deserve recognition.

Yes, I know that some workers seem slow or even confused by the job they’re supposed to do.  A few years back, the head of the Baltimore County board of elections said that the average age of her election judges was “deceased.”  The thing is: they’re the ones who stepped up.

If you’re voting today, the people at your precinct likely did something like the 4,000 election judges in my county have to do:

  • Complete a mandatory training class prior to the election (three to five hours).
  • On the night before the election, set up the voting place (at least a two-hour task).
  • On election day, arrive by 6 a.m. in order to open promptly at 7 a.m.
  • After voting ends at 8 p.m. (or later, if extended by court order), complete reports, verify vote totals, secure the voting machines.

Not everyone’s able to put in a 14 – 16 hour shift.  In my last two outings, I didn’t finish my chores until 1:30 a.m., which tended to crimp my sprightliness the day after the election.

You dance with who brung you, though, and you vote with who volunteered. One reason I was asked to be a chief judge is that I could tell a USB cable from an Ethernet cable; with the advent of electronic pollbooks (devices listing every registered voter in the state and the correct precinct for each), judges needed a higher level of comfort than in the past.  And next election, the process will probably change again.

If you’ve got some public spirit, some patience, and a bit of stamina, think about a tour or three as an election judge.  As Bob Dole said of being vice-president, it’s inside work and there’s no heavy lifting.

Photo of election precinct workers in Alaska by yksin.