Reflections on being an election judge

4:30: “Do you work here? Cuz I’m ready to vote!”

About four weeks ago now, several hours before America went to the polls to start voting for a new president, I drove out to rural Boone County Missouri to finish preparing a polling place. I know some people spent the day watching election returns, but I spent the entire day at that polling location, without cell phone reception or any sense of what was going on in the world until I got into my car at about 9 PM central. Until then, I had had about fifteen minutes of downtime in the previous fifteen hours.

This was my first experience as an election judge. Almost two months before election day I received a mass email from the Boone County Clerk’s office putting out a call for more election judges. The county pays judges some money, including three training sessions, setup of the polling place, and one very long election day. I decided that it might be a good experience for me to sit on the other side of that desk and alleviate some of my anxiety so, since I don’t teach on Tuesdays, I signed up. Then, the week before the election, I received another email asking for volunteers to work in rural Boone County, and I agreed thinking that I am actually closer to most of the rural sites than to the ones downtown. Naturally, I was assigned to the polling station most distant from me while still being in the county.

I went out to the polling station on Monday to help set up, but, had to leave before it was done in order to get back to campus for an appointment. It was raining on election day when I woke up at 3 AM so I could leave home by 4 and arrive by 4:30. On my way into the polling place the first voter asked me when she could vote.

5:47: “Oh, yay! Voters!”

Voting began in Boone County at 6 AM and we had a line at 5:45. The average wait in our line (we were told) was more than twenty minutes, and that was a) in a rural district, b) with three check-in stations, c) with an efficient system that only took about a minute to check each person in, and d) with people who didn’t bother waiting in the morning and came back later in the day. The station I worked at checked in more than five hundred voters over the course of the day, and until the poll closed, the line only really disappeared twice, once for about five minutes around 10 AM and once around 1 PM for an hour. It was in that latter period that everyone managed to snag our only break of the day to grab a bite to eat.

Every ballot handed out had to be signed off on by election judges with two different party affiliations. In practice this meant that our seven workers for three check-in stations worked in pairs, with one person roaming to collect pens, assist voters, and operate our single electronic voting machine. I liked my coworkers, all of whom were from the area around the polling station and therefore some knew each other already. The most memorable of the coworkers reminded me, in the best way possible, of a young, male Leslie Knope: a young, outgoing, true-believer in the civic process.

Voter: “You need to have a little patience on a day like this.”
Voter: “Where’s my America gone?!”

Working at a polling station for a presidential election is, in my admittedly limited experience, an exercise in managing chaos. There are dozens of small, repetitive and redundant steps taken throughout the day and hundreds of repeated interactions. You are a custodian, secretary, bureaucrat, and customer service rep all in one, regulating and managing a flood of people, most of whom are patient and understanding, but some of whom are primed to be aggrieved.

There were problems, of course, including several very frustrated voters and instances where we had to put them on the phone with the main office to resolve the issue. Certainly, with experience, we could have improved the process a bit, but, I am confident in saying that there were no shenanigans with the vote in our little corner of Missouri.

They need to call it tonight so I can wear the broach that I made.

Being an election judge was an interesting and largely rewarding experience. It reminded me of the the stories about being in a foxhole where any disagreements with the people around you go away in favor of just trying to survive. The people I worked with at the election station were lovely and most of the voters who waited in line were good sports about the inconvenience so long as they got to vote. I was disappointed with the outcome of the election, but not this experience. I expect that I will be working elections again in the future.

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