Doing their part for democracy

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Barbara Ruben

Thousands of election officers are needed to work at the polls on election days throughout the Washington region. Like these election judges, shown at the Wheaton High School polling location in Maryland during April’s primary, most workers are at opposite ends of the age spectrum, either over 50 or in high school.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

On Maryland’s primary election day in April, Thomas Mann got to his polling place a little before 6 a.m. — and didn’t leave until around 10 o’clock that evening.

No, he didn’t spend 16 hours waffling between congressional candidates or figuring out Maryland’s new paper ballots. Rather, Mann serves as a chief election judge at his precinct in Bethesda.

Mann is responsible for getting the polling place set up and making sure the equipment is working, as well as supervising other election day workers.

“It’s a very long day, and I’m not a youngster anymore at 67. But it’s part of the process. It’s nice to know I can still do it,” said Mann.

While the election day hours may be long, it’s a job that generally only requires working a few days every other year. Like an electoral Brigadoon, polling places, which are often situated in schools, pop up — from voting machines and partitions, to ballots and voter rolls — just hours before the election starts, and then vanish by the next day.

So it takes a lot of person power to make it happen. Just in Montgomery County, Md., about 3,200 election workers — called “election judges” by the county — are needed for each election. 

Most election workers are at either end of the age spectrum. In Montgomery County, about 80 percent are over age 50. In Fairfax County, Va., older adults make up 86 percent of the workers.

Older high school students, who usually have the day off, also help out. While pay varies by jurisdiction, most election workers end up earning about $10 to $18 per hour.

More workers needed

It’s always a struggle to recruit and train as many election workers as are necessary to keep the polls running smoothly, said Leslie Woods, election worker program coordinator for Montgomery County. Bilingual judges who speak Spanish are especially needed, she said.

“It’s a challenge countywide,” she said. “Some people think it’s just going to happen, and it’s not just going to happen. We need people to participate in the process.”

That’s why the county has worked harder to recruit high school juniors and seniors. It’s also created several types of part-time positions to entice those who worry that a 14- to 16-hour day is too grueling.

Fairfax County has had the same difficulties. “If we need 2,500 workers, we’ll say we need 3,000 simply because so many people cancel, or have emergencies, or just don’t show up. It’s just really hard to get people interested in it,” said Jane Hong, Fairfax County’s election officer coordinator.

The positions in Fairfax are all full-day ones. “When people call to apply, we do say, ‘by the way, we just want you to know it is a long day, but you get breaks.’ The good thing about the November elections is the day goes by really quickly. You’re so busy, you don’t even notice the time,” Hong said.

Another reason it’s difficult to get workers is that many people don’t think they’re allowed to pitch in, according to Woods.

“In the past, like 50 years ago, a lot of poll workers were selected through the party. That’s no longer the case. We’re non-partisan. It’s an open process for every registered voter. But there’s this idea that, ‘I can’t do this’ — that a regular citizen can’t just volunteer” to work the polls, she said.

In addition, “we’re competing with other volunteer opportunities — all of the nonprofits, the PTA, Habitat for Humanity — to get volunteer hours from individuals, particularly in this area where schedules are tight and people are busy. But for some, we’re at the top of their list. They like elections and come back.”

That includes Mann, who started years ago, after discovering that his old Boy Scout leader was an election judge. “That was a community leader who was involved [as] an election judge. I was not at all surprised to see him there. That was the kind of thing I expected of him. I thought, ‘I want to do that too,’” said Mann, a retired account executive for a radio station.

More process than politics

Like Mann, despite living in the nation’s capital and choosing to work the polls, many election workers aren’t generally out campaigning for their candidates or glued to the TV screen during debates.

“It’s the local industry, so it’s natural to pay attention. But I really don’t watch the election any closer [than I would have if I wasn’t at the polls all day]. For me, it’s more a mechanical process that I’m ensuring the integrity of. There’s absolutely no partisanship involved whatsoever,” Mann said.

Longtime election chief judge Roselynn Dunn agrees. After 36 years helping out on election days, the retired teacher says she’s “not into campaigning, that kind of thing....I’m not into the politics, but into the process — the electoral process. It’s changed so much over the years.

“Each time there’s an election, I say I’m not going to do it anymore. I’m getting too old,” said Dunn, who recalls the days of helping voters into booths where the curtain would open when they pulled a lever that also cast their vote. “But then I sign up for it and keep coming back.”

What Dunn, 78, does like is seeing her neighbors and fellow community members come in to vote, since she works in the precinct where she lives, in Aspen Hill, Md.

Daniel Pernell, who lives in Washington, D.C., said he was motivated to get involved because he wanted to help keep elections fair, and help people understand the process. He said some election judges he observed were not as helpful as they could be.

“Sometimes there are people who moved from Maryland, but they didn’t change their registration, and they would argue that they should be allowed to vote in the District. Or there were former inmates who have the right to vote, but were being told they could not,” said Pernell, who is 65 and works at a precinct in Southeast Washington. “I think it’s important to know the rules and to be able to enforce them.”

Thomas Julian, who has worked for about 20 years at polling places in Ft. Belvoir, Va., said he hasn’t seen much conflict.

He remembers that when he started, there were huge voting machines to move around, and “you had to make sure you didn’t drop one on your toes.” These days, the electronic machines are much lighter, he said.

“We have many of the same stalwart workers at our precinct each election, so there is a sense of camaraderie,” Julian said. “It’s so interesting to meet so many people. You get a sense of the variety of Americans.”

Husband and wife Kathryn Winsberg and Newton Stablein work together at the polling station inside Bethesda Elementary School in Bethesda, Md.

“I feel very energized by being part of this process,” said Stablein, 72. “I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction working as a team, seeing democracy in action.”