My Experience as an Election Judge (AKA Poll Worker)

how to be an election judge

Every time I went to vote in an election I wondered about the people working at the polling station. I recognized many from my community but didn’t know how they got that job so I did a bit a research. The role in my county is called an election judge, and how you become one varies not just from state to state but by county. I decided to apply to be an election judge or official; now that I am self-employed I can choose to “take off” Election Day and help at the polls. I live in Prince George’s County, Maryland and in this county, you apply online and if they have an opening they will contact you. You take a four-hour training and are required to work at the polling station a couple hours the night before Election Day, and at least 14 hours on the actual day. You also agree to work for any general and primary election that happens in the year. I applied this past spring, was accepted late summer, and was scheduled for training in September. When you complete the training you’re told you may work at any polling location in the county; I was excited when last month they let me know my location would be a spot right in my city.

The Role of Election Judge

I live in a state that has a lot of laws in place to make voting accessible. I know this isn’t true for all of the country, so if you live elsewhere your experience and responsibilities as a judge may vary.

The night before Election Day, we met at the polling place and around bottles of waters and a tray of cookies, got to know one another and receive our Election Day assignments. There were 14 of us at my polling location, two who were Chief Judges (the senior members of the group who manage us, one who is a Republican, one who is a Democrat). After receiving our assignments, we got to setting up the room. We moved tables, put up signage, put together the polling booths, plugged in the machines, and headed home to get a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, we were back at 5:30 am. We’re not allowed to leave the building while voting is taking place so we all brought our meals, drinks, and creature comforts. One judge brought her coffee maker and condiments, another brought snacks. We all got into our assigned places. There were four people checking in voters, two on the floor to manage lines, two at the station to get your ballot and to assist those who need the accessible voting machine, two scanning ballots, two managing provisional voters and anyone having an exception with their ballot, and the two Chief Judges who oversaw the room, checked in on us at our stations, dealt with any issues, and when needed got on the floor to control crowds or allow judges to take breaks.

As the newbie, I was assigned the Provisional and Exception tables along with another person who had worked this role before. Anyone who had to vote provisionally came to me. I would have them fill out a form along with their ballot and instead of scanning their ballot, it would be dropped into a locked canvas bag. Also, if anyone accidentally filled out their ballot wrong, accidentally tore it, or for some reason, the scanner couldn’t read a page of their ballot, they would come to me, I’d provide a replacement ballot and “spoil” their original, record it, and file it. There are many checks and balances to be sure there are no missing ballots and every single completed ballot is accounted for.

Doors opened at 7 am and there was already a line around the building. We never had a moment without someone in line to vote, though 3 pm was the slowest point of the day. Doors closed at 8 pm, our last voter left at 7:45 but doors were not locked until 8:01. We think the evening was slow (slower than previous years per the veteran judges) because early voting was encouraged.

After the doors closed, we still had work to do. We had to tally everything up, check it against other reports and make sure everything was counted and matched up. We had to pack up the booths, the machines, the signage. And a Closing Judge took all the machinery with the poll results to headquarters. It was a very long day, but I am so glad to have done it. And I plan to continue to be an Election Judge for future elections.

My experience as a poll worker in Marylandpoll worker selfie

 

What I Learned as an Election Judge

The experience was eye-opening. For years I have stood in line, maybe quietly grumbled when it has taken a long time, voted, got my sticker and rolled out. I never really noticed the staff or those around me voting, nor did I stop to think how everything got set up in that room that is usually a gymnasium or how the votes got from the gym to the results on the TV screen.

When you check in to vote in PG County, we use a machine that connects to Maryland voting information. We don’t ask for ID, but we do ask you to spell your name and confirm your address. We may ask additional information to confirm we’re selecting the right person from the system and there are processes to ensure people don’t vote twice or cause voter fraud.

In Maryland, if you applied for an absentee ballot but didn’t use it you can still vote on Election Day at the polls. If you show up to the wrong polling station, you can still vote. If your address changed recently, you can still vote. These are some of the reasons one would vote provisionally. Provisional votes do count, but they aren’t counted on Election Night. They are tallied later and can help with tiebreakers. This sounds sketchy, but at my polling place, there were only a couple dozen provisional votes. The system is set up that provisional votes should be minimal.

Maryland returned to paper ballots over a decade ago not because it’s cheaper or because the County is in the stone ages, but because it’s more accurate and tamper resistant. If you are unable to fill out a paper ballot, each polling station has at least one touch screen polling machine available.

If you are blind, deaf, unable to walk, unable to write, or any other situation you can still vote. Let us know when you check in and we will make any and every accommodation to give you the right to vote.

Being an Election Judge isn't easy.  It's an extremely long day and it's emotionally taxing assisting so many different people. You can't even step outside for a breath of fresh air, and you're suddenly BFFs with 13 people you hardly know for almost 24 hours straight.  I now understand why when I went to vote the majority of the election judges look bored, angry, or exhausted. I will be even kinder to them in the future!

Mean People Vote

You can often read a voter as soon as she or he enters the polling place. There were many who walked in expecting the experience to be awful. They were tapping their foot and pointedly looking at their watch, loudly huffing while crossing their arms, purposefully speaking loud to another in line about how slow and archaic the process was. We’d thank people for voting as they left and half the time received a snarky response. At least a dozen times, I heard someone end their sentence to a judge with, “No thanks to you.”

A fellow judge was called a misogynist for asking a woman to put away her cell phone (you cannot use your cell phone, can’t even check a text while in a polling place). He asked a man just before her, he was asking everyone to put away their phones as he was instructed to do and this woman yelled at him and asked to speak to the Chief Judge about his supposed sexism.

A man in a MAGA hat got up in my face and yelled that he needs an ID to buy a beer, an ID to buy a gun, an ID to use the community pool but no ID needed to vote and I was destroying America and he’d have my job.

One judge asked another a question to confirm he was doing a process correctly, a voter yelled at him, called him boy and asked if the other judge wiped his ass for him too.

I had a lot of people yell at me because they were marked as a provisional voter and they felt that was wrong. I explained that we had no control over that, would give them the number to the Board of Elections, and told them that their provisional vote would still be counted but they’d continue to call us names and tell us how corrupt the system was. A couple refused their right to vote because they were marked as provisional and stormed out.

The voting process in Maryland is not perfect, but it’s so much better than many other states, and definitely better than many other countries. We are so lucky to have the right to vote and where I live, we are so lucky to have it accessible. Where I live, I can easily walk to three polling locations. I know parts of this country people have to drive hours to vote, it floored me how rude and entitled many individuals were.  But just like when I worked retail decades ago, I kept smiling and focused on those who needed and wanted help. It's easy to get down about mean people, but the great ones were the majority.  In general, people were happy.  I saw many people tear up when submitting their ballot, so many people in fantastic t-shirts representing organizations they support, multiple generations coming to vote together.

being a poll worker responsibilitiessweeping up at the end of Election Day

The Uninformed Voter

I heard two people discussing how a candidate ended the Rain Tax and both of them didn’t understand what a Rain Tax was. The two of them, strangers before that day, both thought the government was taxing residents based upon the amount of rainfall in a given year. And they chose to vote for that candidate because he reduced their personal taxes by eliminating the Rain Tax.

I heard people say they didn’t vote for someone because he looked like a pedophile, because they couldn’t tell what race he was, because his wife looks like a bitch, because she wore an ugly suit to a debate, because their neighbor is voting for her and he can never agree with his neighbor so the candidate must suck.

Many voters didn’t know the political party of the current governor who was running for reelection.

As an Election Judge I wasn’t in a place to educate or even discuss the election, but sitting at that table people forgot I was there and I heard a lot of inaccurate and downright ridiculous information about the government, candidates, and the voting process.

As an FYI, Election Judges are paid. In PG County, we receive $50 for training and $300 per election as long as we attend all three (training, the night before the meeting, and Election Day). Night judges who take the machinery back to headquarters receive an additional $100. During the day, several different voters encouraged the crowd to give us a hand for volunteering and it was sweet, but not quite accurate. It’s a very popular activity for the retired and underemployed because it provides a necessary bit of money just before the holidays.

Some people got so mad that they couldn’t vote quickly (it never took more than an hour, even during peak times) that they stormed out before actually voting. The polls are open from 7 am to 8 pm and there was a long period prior for early voting. Voting is so important, it’s worth it to plan according to your schedule. If you arrive between 8-9am ET it will be a much longer line than if you arrive right at 7 am, or 3 pm, or even just before closing. Consider early voting, which may offer a location closer to your place of work, will have shorter lines and is even open on weekends.

This experience made me realize it's not overkill to share information about voting.  I saw many complain that there were too many ads on registering to vote or basic information about voting.  But Election Day, I saw highly educated individuals not know the basics and had many people share their neighbors didn't vote because they didn't know how to register. If you have knowledge, share it.  The worst you'll get is an eye roll, the best is you'll inspire another American to have his or her voice heard in the next election.

Lack of Ballots in PG County

PG County was in the news because this Election Day, some precincts ran out of ballots. Our Chief Judge called many times early in the day to request more ballots so we'd never have this issue but heard there was an issue with the courier.  We never received additional ballots and thankfully we didn't run out (but it was close). The County ordered ballots based upon the numbers of who voted in the last presidential election. I think it's wonderful that more people voted in PG County for a midterm election, it really shows that people are concerned and there has been more outreach to get people registered to vote and to the polls. More than 110 million Americans voted for this election, 47% of the population. 49.9% of Marylanders voted in this election. It's the highest turnout for a midterm election since 1966 and quite impressive considering all the issues across the country regarding issues with ballots, polling stations, and voter suppression.  I know PG County will prepare accordingly with more ballots for the next election and hope that other states will work to make voting even more accessible and accurate.

Voting Resources

Voting is a privilege. Many before us fought and died for our right to vote. It doesn’t happen often and we’re notified well in advance before the day arrives so there’s time to prepare. Below are some resources to help you be informed and prepare before the next Election Day:

And if you too would like to help out for the next election, Google “how to be an election judge” and enter your state. The role has different names depending on where you live; some states call then officers or workers. For those who live in Maryland please visit https://elections.maryland.gov/get_involved/election_judges.html for those in DC visit https://www.dcboe.org/Poll-Workers/Apply-to-be-an-Election-Day-Worker and for those in Virginia visit https://www.elections.virginia.gov/officer-of-elections/

39 Comments

  1. November 22, 2018 / 12:28 pm

    Thanks for sharing this! I really didn’t have a good feeling of what election judges did, but I’m glad I do now!

    • November 24, 2018 / 9:17 am

      I’m glad you found it informative!

  2. Laura
    November 19, 2018 / 11:35 am

    I grew up in PG County Maryland but moved to the Twin Cities in 1999. I remember going to vote with my parents as a kid and it always took forever, an hour or more, and seemed super complicated with all of those levers.

    I’ve only ever voted myself in MN and I’m always prepared for it to take an hour or longer based on my childhood experience. However, the longest it’s ever taken me is 15-20 minutes, and that’s been in big elections like 2008 and 2016 and the state is known for high voter turnout. This year it took me about 5 minutes. Most midterm and off-year elections I can walk in and walk out without any waiting at all. We’ve always had paper ballots here.

    It always boggles my mind how fast voting goes here (and I’ve never seen anyone rude or grouchy – but then, I’ve never been there that long either so maybe I just miss them?) and that it can take hours in other states… the ones where the news stories report that people are waiting in line for hours and the polls are closing.

    It definitely isn’t equitable and it certainly discourages people from voting. I couldn’t imagine waiting in line for hours to vote if I had a chronic pain condition or a newborn to care for. I’m not sure what is going on in other states such that it takes so long to vote. It just seems so strange.

  3. Gayle W
    November 14, 2018 / 3:18 pm

    Wow. I’m not sure if I should feel appalled or just sad at the rudeness of some people in this country. I have said for a long time that voting is not just a right, but a duty. And part of that duty is to be an INFORMED voter. Thank you for sharing your experience and giving us all a peek behind the scenes.

    • November 15, 2018 / 12:16 pm

      My pleasure, I think the more people know what it takes for voting to happen maybe the more they will respect the process.

  4. Bronwyn
    November 14, 2018 / 8:42 am

    I’ve worked as a poll worker in British Columbia and one of the rules on election day is that no campaign material can be displayed in the polling place or within 100 meters of the entrance. I’m curious whether the same law applies in Maryland because you mentioned one man wearing a MAGA hat and other voters wearing t-shirts from specific campaigns. (These items wouldn’t be allowed since they are considered campaign material.)

    • November 15, 2018 / 12:18 pm

      We as poll workers weren’t allowed to wear red or blue or have anything that showed our preference. Polling material and marketing has to be a certain distance from the building. You’re not supposed to wear anything promoting a specific candidate, but wearing things like MAGA hats or Women’s March shirts are allowed because they aren’t technically specific to a candidate.

    • hm
      December 11, 2018 / 12:34 pm

      I was an elector in the last federal election in BC, and we were told we weren’t even allowed to wear colours that could be construed as support for the different parties (ie red for Liberals, blue for Conservatives, etc). And saw a lot rudeness at polling stations that were super busy which wasn’t great as the previous gov’t had changed the rules for id to prove your address and identity. 🙁

  5. Lindsay
    November 13, 2018 / 5:23 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experience as an election judge! Regardless of the fact that it is a paid position, it is important work and I appreciate you doing your part as well as telling your readers about it. I find it interesting to read about experiences in other states. I’m in Hawaii, and have only had to wait in line to vote once (and really, that time i only waited about 10 minutes). Although unfortunately, we don’t have the greatest voter turnout, which might have something to do with that!

    • November 15, 2018 / 12:20 pm

      While it’s not for good reasons, this election has really brought to light the differences in the voting process from state to state and it’s been interesting to learn about how each state does it!

  6. Sue
    November 13, 2018 / 1:14 pm

    Hi Alison, Thanks for this very interesting post. I’ve worked on a number of elections in the province of Ontario, Canada, and was intrigued to learn about the differences in our voting systems. I didn’t know what provisional ballots were – we don’t have them here – and unlike your state, our voters have to show ID which proves that they’re who they are, and also where they live. We don’t have much on-line voting yet, and no mail-in ballot systems. I certainly recognize some of the ‘types’ you describe!

    One point that really struck me was the one about uninformed voters. I read a bit too much about American politics these days (lol) and am aware of the many voices before the midterms encouraging people to get out and vote – what I’d like to see added to that is encouragement to get out and vote as an INFORMED voter. Find out about the local candidates and their policies, find out about the issues and how they might affect you and your life, and THEN go vote.

    • November 15, 2018 / 12:24 pm

      A good point, but I think for a lot it’s hard to find the information. This election, our ballot was three pages long. I consider myself an informed voter but some things on there I had not known prior to voting that they would be on the ballot and I had to make a decision based on the paragraph they offered about it. Materials that arrive in the mail are paid for by a certain party or politician, and with more and more news deserts in our country it’s hard to get information on smaller issues like funding for roadways or changing term limits. The best thing is for us to be as informed as possible and share what we’ve learned with others. That and with encouraging people to actually vote may inspire them to do research on their parts and see their vote matters and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

      • November 15, 2018 / 6:49 pm

        The League of Women Voters has an incredibly useful resource where you can see what will be on your ballot before you vote: https://www.vote411.org/ballot
        Not only does it list the questions/initiatives that will be on your ballot and the candidates, it often has statements from those candidates on various key issues so that you have their positions in their own words, no spin or bias from whatever news source. I used it to look up a few lesser-known races in my town the day of the election and it was hugely helpful.

  7. Linda B
    November 13, 2018 / 8:33 am

    Wow, Alison, this was a fantastic, educational post. I always wondered what it was like to be an elect judge, and now I know! I always make sure to thank the people working in my polling place, and now I will be doubly sure I do.

    I am glad we have paper ballots where I live, in Arizona. It does feel more tamper proof. And I felt my vote was more important than ever this year. I am so happy with the results finally announced last night in our Senate race!!!

    Thank you for your service last week, and for this post.

  8. Jen
    November 12, 2018 / 11:10 pm

    This was the first time in years that I couldn’t work at the polls–and I missed it; thanks for the nostalgia! I’d second everything you said; in Virginia, one can either be a full-on volunteer or get paid; while I originally signed up in a fit of patriotism, halfway through the day, I decided that I was earning the money and might as well take it! If it’s any consolation, in Virginia, we get yelled at both for requiring photo IDs and for providing voter registration cards that aren’t valid at the polls–so both sides of that argument.
    Which might be why I cheerfully voted this year with a school ID card, to the dismay of the poor poll worker with a system set up for drivers’ licenses. But I was nice!

    • November 15, 2018 / 12:26 pm

      LOL! Thank you for doing this job, I love that you used a school ID!

  9. Christy
    November 12, 2018 / 8:59 pm

    Alison~ I know you have a million things going on, so I really admire that you did this, and took the time to share such a comprehensive summary of your experience. I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be a poll worker, but never looked into it. This is one reason I love your blog- so grounded and real.

  10. Kirsty
    November 12, 2018 / 6:32 pm

    Really interesting to get an insight into how the election process works in the US. I’m in the U.K and the impression we’ve been getting in the press here, is that it’s really hard to vote, with lots of hoops to jump through.

    I work in local government in the U.K. We can volunteer to work as an election clerk. We have to use a days leave to do the role and then get a flat rate of about $200 to work on the day. Everyone who counts the ballots also gets paid.

    The whole process must be so much harder over there given the size of the country.

    • November 15, 2018 / 12:35 pm

      Each state is different. I understand letting states manage certain things so they can do what is best for their population, geography, etc. But when it comes to voting, there are so many sketchy laws and policies I wish it was fair across the board.

  11. Tara
    November 12, 2018 / 3:47 pm

    Thank you for volunteering! My mom was a frequent poll worker when I was growing up in California. I live in Seattle now, and King County is an all mail-in ballot county. This year they found the budget to support return envelopes that didn’t require postage, which was great as that had been a barrier for many people in the past. Ballots are sent weeks prior to the election and early voting is encouraged though you can use centrally-located drop boxes until 8PM on election day. But there is a lot of encouragement to get your ballot in early to help get results tallied early, too. Filling it out at home and being able to refer to the voting guide and go online to research referendums has been really nice!

    • November 15, 2018 / 12:37 pm

      What a fantastic method for voting in your state! It’s a very modern manner, considering how life is these days and I love that they now offer postage!

  12. Janet
    November 12, 2018 / 1:45 pm

    Allison – thanks for sharing your experience. Eye opening and inspirational.

  13. Trystan
    November 12, 2018 / 1:01 pm

    Thank you for working the election (paid or not, it’s still hard work that’s important to our democracy!) & thank you for this post. Every single election is vital, from president down to city council. I wish more Americans took it seriously.

    • November 15, 2018 / 12:46 pm

      I hope the positive turnout of this election will inspire more to take it seriously.

  14. BETHANY
    November 12, 2018 / 11:28 am

    Thank you for doing this important work. I worked as a poll checker (A member of one of the parties who listens for voter’s names being called out (a legal requirement in my state) and marks down who voted. This allows parties and candidates to identify who to target for their GOTV (Get Out The Vote) campaigns) for both the primary and general election this year. The poll workers at my polling place were dedicated and enthusiastic. My polling place is in the large garage of a firehouse. It was freezing for the general election. I only spent 3 – 4 hours there and I couldn’t wait to leave. The poll workers were stuck there all day and didn’t complain. They were courteous to everyone. I can’t thank you and them enough.

  15. db
    November 12, 2018 / 10:57 am

    I was also a first-time poll worker (“Election Inspector” in my state) and like you – it was an eye-opening experience! Encourage everyone to read up on their area’s rules and policies, and if anything doesn’t make sense, talk to a poll worker or your local representatives about why things are set up that way. All of the angry people should sign up to do the work – same for anyone claiming concern about voter fraud.

    • November 15, 2018 / 12:52 pm

      Thank you for signing up for this important role!

  16. Mary W
    November 12, 2018 / 10:45 am

    Thank you for this excellent, well written article. I too am a Poll Worker. I work in Central Florida in an area that is very traditional and conservative. Our crew has worked together for 14 years so we work like a well oiled machine. Residing in Florida means we get paid much less than you do and voting is much more difficult for the voters. During the Primaries we had rude voters just as you mentioned. Due to record breaking early voting, the day of the November election had lighter turnout than expected. The biggest surprise was how nice voters were to all of us! Gone were the angry voters filled with rage. We had the best Poll Worker experience on November 6 than in previous years. I HIGHLY recommend everyone give it a try. Not only do you get paid but you learn first hand exactly how your city, county and state run elections. There is a ton of false information going around today about fraud but we know it’s not true.

    • November 15, 2018 / 12:54 pm

      thank you so much for being a poll worker!

  17. Liz Y
    November 12, 2018 / 10:12 am

    Bravo! Thank you for being there, and for telling us about it. Such great information, and so inspiring!

    • November 12, 2018 / 10:42 am

      Thank you for this link! We had signs at the doors and throughout the room, but it’s so unexpected to not be able to use your phone somewhere, we had to remind people. They told us the reason is privacy, so there’s no photos of people voting or their ballots. When I told people that they were usually understanding. We’d hand over scrap paper and a pen to let them transcribe their info before heading into line. I knew in Maryland I couldn’t take a booth selfie or ballot selfie but had no idea before being a judge that phones and cameras in general were not permitted. This was such an informative experience!

      • Mary W
        November 12, 2018 / 10:56 am

        You can’t take a ‘ballot selfie’ in Illinois, Florida, or 25 other states. Many consider this law unenforceable and therefor ineffective. In Florida voters could use their phone to look at photos they had taken of their choices but they could not talk on their phones. Discussing politics in the polling area is also strictly forbidden. We had to ask many couples to stop telling their partners how to vote. One woman screamed at us, ” I’ve been telling him what to do for 25 years and I’m not about to stop now!” We did counsel her and she tried to keep her mouth shut after that. It would be helpful if each county in the state had the same rules as well as each state had the same voting procudeures.

        • November 15, 2018 / 12:55 pm

          I agree, it’s hard to enforce rules when people don’t know about it and it changes from state to state!

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