People behind the polls: Pillar of democracy upheld by election judges
“I…..solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will perform the duties of election judge according to law and the best of my ability and will diligently endeavor to prevent fraud, deceit and abuse in conducting this election. I will perform my duties in a fair and impartial manner and not attempt to create an advantage for my party or any candidate.”– Oath from the Minnesota Secretary of State’s 2016 election laws manual; taken by each election judge on election day
WORTHINGTON -- As the most contentious, vitriolic campaign season in modern memory nears its end, a self-selected group is gearing up for Election Day by logging extra sleep and reminding all that the right to vote is a sacred duty and obligation for U.S. citizens.
If a dose of sanity is what’s needed, listen to the voices of local election judges. Rather than spending Tuesday hand wringing or ranting, these individuals will instead fill a vital role as responsible and impartial implementers of our democracy who celebrate the privilege eligible U.S. citizens have to vote.
“Our democratic election process is dependent on the many dedicated people who work as election judges,” asserted Beth Van Hove, Nobles County Auditor-Treasurer.
“We simply couldn’t run an election effectively without them, and I’m really grateful for all of those who will make Tuesday’s election possible here in Nobles County.”
What parts do election judges play? What compels them to work a more than 14-hour day for modest compensation? Who are the people behind the polls? Learn a little about those who make it possible for you to exercise your right to choose.Election judges on the job
It starts early — at 6 a.m., to be exact, whether the election is a sparsely attended primary or a lines-down-the-hall general ballot.
“We have to report by 6 a.m., and the polls close at 8 p.m. — and there’s work after that,” noted Mary Ann Winter, a local election judge since 2010.
“Each polling location has to be organized and have the U.S. flag out by 7 a.m., and it’s an all-day deal — a long day,” said Leola Weets, a longtime election judge who has now retired from the position.
Both Winter and Weets are also past employees of the Nobles County Auditor-Treasurer’s Office, so they’ve been behind the scenes in more ways than one.
“Elections were stressful, busy times — plus there are normal, ongoing duties, too — but it was also exciting and we really looked forward to it,” recalled Winter of her 30 years assisting with the preparation of electoral materials and election judges.
“We took the work seriously and felt like a small but essential part of a very important process.”
Being so close to the inner cogs of elections must be somewhat addictive because Winter and Weets later opted to become election judges.
“I took the first year off after I retired to stay home and watch the election results come in, but by 2010 I’d signed on as an election judge so I could see what they do at the polls,” said Winter.
Each election judge must undergo a two-hour training program, usually in July of an election year, and head election judges experience at least three hours of instruction, explained Janice Oberloh, Worthington’s city clerk and chief election official.
“We need at least 55 election judges here, and each precinct must have a minimum of four judges present at all times — but we like to have extras so they can have time for breaks and staggered meals,” Oberloh said.
“Beth Van Hove is Nobles County’s chief election official, and we work with guidance from her,” Oberloh added. “There are precise instructions for polling place setup and teardown, and each election judge is sworn in before the polling places open.”
Among the tasks election judges perform are setting up each polling place, placing required signs and the U.S. flag, checking in each voter and/or registering new voters on site, distributing one ballot per voter, assisting voters when needed, reconciling all numbers of ballots and voters when the polls close at 8 p.m. and distributing bright red “I voted!” stickers.
“Each person plays a part and has a certain station to cover,” said Weets.
“It’s all taken very, very seriously,” assured Kelly Reeves, an election judge since 2008 and a head election judge in the past few election cycles.
Added Winter, “One person verifies that a voter is registered and makes sure to get the signature, and if someone is not registered, there’s a registration judge to help with that.”
The lengthy election day ends when two election judges (one from each major party) physically take the tub containing precinct ballots to the auditor-treasurer’s office, where staff members are then responsible for sending the tallies directly to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office.
“No one can leave the building until everything is balanced,” affirmed Ginny Tate, an election judge since 1998.
“It’s not necessarily a hard job, but it can be a long, long day.”Checks and balances
Election judges, who must declare their personal party affiliations when registering for the job in order to assure fair representation at each polling site, simply shake their heads at mention of potential voter fraud.
While a certain presidential candidate asserted throughout October that the election might be “rigged,” said that “voter fraud is very, very common” and that “people that have died 10 years ago are still voting,” this cohort of local election judges quickly dismisses those notions.
“I really believe things are on the up and up,” affirmed Weets. “Election judges must match the number of ballots they have before 7 a.m. with the number of registered voters who’ve come to the polling site, and if there are any spoiled ballots during the day, you have to include those, too, along with any unused ballots.
“Each ballot must be accounted for.”
Bernice Camery, an election judge with 50 years of service under her belt, concurs.
“If you’ve been dead for 10 years, your name is not on the roster at all,” noted Camery. “And you would have to register again — but you wouldn’t be here to register.
“It’s pretty hard to beat the system because it’s so well protected,” Camery continued. “I can’t see how it could be rigged for one candidate or another; even when we’re done in the evening, we’re required to have two people — one from each party — take the ballots and results to the government center.
“There’s a check on everything, at every point of handling the ballots.”
Winter shared her perspective.
“As far as Worthington and Nobles County are concerned, I’m very confident there is no voter fraud,” said Winter. “Everything is checked, and checked, and checked.”
Oberloh agrees that voters can make their marks with complete confidence.
“We have a great system in our city, county and state, and even though election judges have a big responsibility for executing the election and maintaining order, they take their work seriously and the auditor-treasurer’s office has everything down to a science,” contributed Oberloh.
“A lot of our election judges have served for many years and everything here goes smoothly,” she added. “Even though each election year can present challenges, there are a lot of good, reliable people working together to make sure things go well.”
And election judges are models for getting along with others despite varying political opinions.
“Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of different people,” shared Tate. “We all work together for a common purpose despite whatever minor political differences we may have.”Camaraderie, caffeine and crock-pots
Although election judges are compensated $10 per hour for their duty, a 14+-hour day that begins before sunrise is not attractive to everyone.
And once on site, election judges are not allowed to leave the particular polling place to which they are assigned until the job is completed.
“There have been people who say it’s too long a day,” said Winter. “It’s a lot of retired people who do it, and there are some who may work only one half or the other of a day.”
“It can be hard to get people to do it,” agreed Tate.
But she and her husband, Corky, both took on the task together, having unlocked the secret of the job’s appeal.
“What we’ve enjoyed the most is seeing people we know but don’t see on a regular basis come in to vote,” said Tate.
Social contact with one’s fellow election judges is another draw for those who’ve returned time after time to do the work.
“We have coffee and snacks, and everybody brings food,” revealed Winter.
“Yes, I probably drink quite a bit of coffee on election days,” admitted Camery.
At the polling places where Tate has worked, “We plan a lunch menu and everyone contributes something to it, even though we have to eat in shifts.
“Then we usually order pizza for the evening meal.”
When voters trail down the hall, waiting their turns to cast ballots, the election judges are happy to be occupied rather than feeling stressed.
“The primaries are the tough ones because the day just drags,” said Reeves. “This year, I’m guessing we’ll be busy non-stop.”
“The days get really long if we’re not busy,” nodded Tate. “Some people bring books or Sudoku to pass the time.”
A mutual commitment to voting is another bond among election judges.
“We all vote,” said Winter. “Most of us vote by absentee ballot, unless we happen to be working at our own polling site.”
“I’ve always made a point of voting,” said Diane Levine, who will serve as an election judge for the first time on Tuesday. Her husband, Burt, was an election judge for several years but unfortunately died in early October. Knowing his death left a gap, she agreed to sign on.
“He always enjoyed it,” said Levine of Burt’s service. “He loved the people and was motivated to do it by the contact he had with others.”Civic duty, patriotic perk
At 51, Reeves, is one of the younger local election judges. She became involved because her parents and other influential adults set positive examples.
“My dad was a former mayor of Emmetsburg, Iowa, and was quite civic-minded,” she explained. “And my best friend’s mother was the county auditor, so she made sure I was registered to vote the minute I turned 18.
“It’s been about 20 years since my dad died, but this is something I know he’d be proud of me for doing,” Reeves continued.
“It’s exciting, I feel better informed, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve met some really great people. This is the ground floor of the democratic process, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican.
“Being an election judge is a great way to do your civic duty.”
Camery, meanwhile, recently celebrated her 90th birthday. She continues to share her decades of experience as a head election judge and anticipates this Tuesday as much as she has past election days.
“It’s a privilege to vote, and I always think about our service men and women — including my late husband, Don, who gave 30 years to the U.S. Army — who have fought hard to keep that privilege for us,” stated Camery.
“I enjoy so much seeing people come to vote, and their sincerity in exercising their democratic rights.
“We don’t know how anyone is going to vote, but we treat everybody the same and praise them for putting forth the effort to do so. How they vote is up to them, and we respect that.”
As a head election judge, Camery urges her team of election judges to follow all election guidelines and do things properly.
“I tell them, ‘No matter how busy you are, make the time to do what you’re supposed to do and don’t just slide through it,’” she related. “’Get people to sign in the right place, and be careful not to say anything that indicates preference one way or another.’”
In an election year when many people argue that both major presidential candidates are flawed, Camery continues to urge citizens to vote nevertheless.
“We always stress that if you don’t feel comfortable voting in a certain race or category, you don’t have to,” clarified Camery. “The rest of your ballot still counts.”
On Tuesday, the local election judges won’t call it quits until each ballot has been accounted for and everything is, as they say, “balanced.” (For staff in the auditor-treasurer’s office, the day will last even longer.)
“Ten to 10:30 p.m. is the earliest I’ve ever been home,” said Camery. “I thank God for the blessing of energy and stamina that allows me to keep doing this and other things I enjoy.”
Chimed in Reeves, “Election day is fun, and I look forward to it — but I’m glad when it’s over all at the same time.”