My day as an election judge

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August 13, 2014
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

As a guy with the flexible schedule, I’m able to vote at the slowest times on Election Day. I see the election judges — often the same faces, year after year — reading a book or newspaper to kill the time, sometimes slumping a bit in the tedium, which always moved me to say, “thanks for your service!”

Every time, I’d walk out swearing to share their load next time. I may have spent years as a cynical journalist, but the majesty of voting has always swelled my idealism — that even the highest-buck campaign still must submit to the unpredictable demands of the voter.

But each year, I’d renege. I’d blame my schedule, or my day job, or I’d just forget. But this year — on something of a sabbatical — I had no more excuses. It turned out to be a wonderful experience.

Having covered the mechanics of vote-counting, it was fascinating  — and affirming — to see it from the inside. The first stop was a two-hour weekend training at the city’s Northeast elections warehouse. The place practically crackles with diligence — it may be a nerd convention, but there’s something wonderful about citizenship, dozens of people in one room, meticulously going over processes honed over dozens of elections and steady technological advances, the veterans helping rookies like me, the city staff grateful and professional.

Even before you face your first voter, what you come away with is a respect for verification — the multiple steps, the paper trail, buttressing every voting act. There’s a reason that Minneapolis uses more than 500 election judges, and that voter fraud charges always fizzle; the voting receipts have to match the ballots cast, the vouchers for other voters have to sign a register (their voter ID # — you all have one — is also recorded.)

Judges have to personally sign off on things like ballot counts and voting machine tapes … you take an oath, so you take that signature seriously. And many steps require judges of multiple parties to sign. (I found myself especially grateful to the non-Democrat judges, who have to be tougher to find in an overwhelmingly DFL town.)

This year, I was the “greeter” — the judge who makes sure people are in the right precinct, and go to the right table. (It didn’t matter much in last week’s slow, slow primary, but increased use of greeters will greatly shorten lines in high-turnout elections.)

You come to appreciate even more the wisdom of Minnesota’s laws that — unlike many states — actually encourage voting. The grandma pushing a stroller who realized she forgot her purse; “You don’t have to go back and get it if you’re already registered,” I told her. The nervous, excited 18-year-old girls who could register on Election Day. The new neighbors could easily change their address without missing some pre-registration “deadline.”

One guy who was working at the park building didn’t know there was an election and asked to vote; when I asked him if he lived in the neighborhood, he said, “I live in St. Paul — can’t I vote anywhere?” When I said no, that’s not how it worked, he accepted the news earnestly; so much for voter fraud.

Because there’s a shortage of election judges, I chose to work the full day, and I won’t lie — it’s work. For one thing, it’s a 15-hour shift (6 a.m. to around 9 p.m.); and the veterans warned me it goes slower in low-turnout elections.

Several people say, “Thank you for volunteering!” It’s sweet, and I said it often as a civilian, but you should know that many judges choose to be paid — $8.75 an hour. It adds up on a 15-hour shift! I’m not trying to burst anyone’s bubble; I didn’t correct anyone Tuesday, and I mostly put this out there to help recruitment: if you want to mix civic duty with a bit of scratch, know that 130 bucks or so (before taxes) is a possibility. Important note: There are also half-day shifts!

The real payoff is a day of feeling virtuous, reconnecting with countless neighbors, seeing the pride, or duty, or eagerness on faces of people in an otherwise TMZ world. If you’d like to help out, please surf to www.vote.minneapolismn.gov/judges/.

David Brauer, a former Journal editor, lives in Kingfield with his wife and two kids.