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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. For many parts of this country, this role is known as a “poll worker.” This 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 of 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.
This post was originally published in 2018 and republished in honor of Super Tuesday
The Role of a Poll Worker or 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.
poll 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 my 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.
sweeping 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.
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:
- Register to Vote: https://www.vote.org/register-to-vote/
- Find your voting place: https://www.vote.org/polling-place-locator/
- Find out if you need an ID to vote where you live: https://www.voteriders.org/get-voter-id/
- If you’ll be out of town or know you won’t be able to get to the polls, apply for an absentee ballot: https://www.vote.org/absentee-ballot/
- If you need a ride to the polls: https://carpoolvote.com
- Don’t know which candidates to vote for? Visit this site where they will ask questions about what is important to you and help you choose: https://www.vote411.org/ballot
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/