You, too, can be a judge for a day

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Robert Friedman

About 1,000 election judges are needed to work at the polls on election day in Howard County. Like these elections judges, shown at a polling location 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

Come Nov. 8, some 1,000 Howard County residents will be working in the 100 area polling places where voters will cast ballots for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and whoever else becomes a bona-fide candidate for the White House, as well as for their senator, congressman, school board members and circuit court judge.

Known as “election judges,” these volunteers will be paid from $165 to $220 for the long day’s journey at the polling stations (usually a 16-hour day). Sound enticing? You’re in luck: it’s not too late. Judges are still being recruited by the Howard County Board of Elections.

Kimberly Phillips, the board’s judge staff recruiter, noted that the great majority of county election judges are 50 or older, adding that the board is trying to reach out to younger judges, particularly students in their last year of high school or in college.

“We usually hire 1,500 judges per election cycle,” she said. “About 800 to 850 are coming back from the 1,100 we had during the primaries,” she said. “We need about 400 more.”

“The no-returns mostly say that it was a longer day than they expected,” Phillips said. “We don’t do shifts.”

Elections Board Director Guy Mickley said he expected a very high turnout for the presidential election in November. “The turnout could be 85 percent, or even 90 percent, of the 206,000 active registered voters” in the county, he said.

Prospective voters still have until Oct. 18 to register — online, or at election offices, post offices and libraries.  

Looking forward to November

John Bertulis, who served as an election judge for the first time at last April’s primary election, is more than eager to carry out the day-long duties again during the presidential elections. He said he found his experience “wonderful,” and can’t wait to do another 16-hour day at the polling site.

“I knew it would be a long day — I have a friend who has been an election judge for over 20 years — so I had a good night’s sleep the day before, brought a nice lunch, and didn’t plan anything for the next day,” said Bertulis, an Ellicott City resident who was assigned to a voting place near his home. The 63-year-old recently retired as ombudsman for the state’s foster care program.

The duties, he said, consisted of handing out the appropriate ballot to the registered voter, explaining the new ballot — after some 15 years, Maryland has returned this year to paper ballots rather than touch-screen electronic voting — making sure the voter gets to the right booth, and that her or his ballot is inserted in the right machine. (The ballots are both scanned by the machine and stored in it.)

The former child welfare worker said he became involved after getting information about becoming an election judge at last year’s Howard County Fair. “The election process is very important, and we need people who are committed to the process,” Bertulis said.

His on-the-job experience has taught him that an important part of the job is to ease the way for voters. “You want to make the process friendly, and expedite it as much as possible.”

Serving runs in the family

Rebecca Dwyer has been an election judge for more than 20 years. She is now a chief judge, meaning she makes sure the polling place she is assigned to is running smoothly.

That also means that she “can do everybody’s job, makes sure the laws are being followed, maintains the peace and comforts people.”

Dwyer, 58, lives in Anne Arundel County, but works election days in Howard County, where she formerly lived.

She will continue to do the judge’s job, she said, not only because she believes in the system, but also because “women had to fight for the right to vote. I believe everyone has that right. As a woman and a citizen, I have to do my part. As long as I can, I want to give others the opportunity to vote.”

And being an election judge has become a family affair, Dwyer said. Her oldest daughter Cara Brady, 37, has been watching over the voting for the past 10 years, and her youngest daughter, Dana Dwyer, 26, not only has been doing the judge stint for the past few years, but is also a fulltime employee of Howard County’s Board of Elections.

Has Dwyer had any out-of-the-ordinary experiences while helping the voters?

“During the last presidential election, at the Hammond High School gym (in Columbia), the lines were very long, and a pregnant woman standing there began to go into labor. We moved her up in the line. She voted and went on her way. No other drama that I can think of,” she said.

Dwyer said she would recommend the one-day judgeship to, among others, those “who have the ability to sit for long periods, then walk around and sit again, and want to socialize, see neighbors, meet new people, make extra money. To them, I would say, ‘Give it a shot.’”

In it for the long haul 

Robert Sauers, 66, an engineer now into information technology, has been working at elections for the past 20 years. “It’s my way of giving back to the community,” he said.

Sauers said many short-term volunteers just don’t understand that they are in for a long day. “It’s not easy,” he said. “You have to bring everything you need — food, medicine.”

He has been a judge at, among other places, the Clarksville Middle School. The board, he said, usually makes sure there is an even distribution of Democrats and Republicans, along with independents and others, as judges. Usually two chief judges — a Democrat and a Republican — are in charge. 

He noted that while the majority of the judges are “40 or over, there have been young people, in their 20s and teens, doing the job. That’s important. We have to train the next generation, get them involved in the process, and change the ratio from older to younger.”

Sauers cautioned would-be volunteers that the job could be “long and tiring.” But, he added, “I am looking forward to it. It makes me a bigger part of the action.”