Problems at the Polls: An Election Judge's Perspective

 /  July 13, 2016, 9:26 p.m.


This past February, as I was scrolling through a “UChicago Careers in Public Policy and Service” email, I noticed there was a link to apply to be an election judge for the March 15th Illinois primary elections. I had heard horror stories about being an election judge from my uncle, who lives in Florida, and I was curious to see if any of the problems—disorganization, improper handling of election materials, ballots simply not being counted—that he had witnessed as a judge in Florida would carry over to Illinois. I knew this was an important election: there had already been record early voting turnout and passions were running high because of the presidential primaries and widespread dissatisfaction with Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. On a kick of spontaneity, I decided to apply.  

After experiencing election day firsthand, I discovered that polling in Cook County is underfunded, understaffed, run by uninformed judges, altogether hectic, and therefore not conducive to the democratic process.  

The application was short: It asked for my basic contact information, GPA, and whether I would like to be a Democratic or Republican judge. About a week later, I received an email letting me know that I had been appointed to the 24th precinct—located at Carnegie Elementary School on the intersection of 61st and Dorchester. I also needed to sign up for training, for which I would be compensated $40.

According to page 13 of the Cook County Election Judge Handbook, my duties as an election judge included: reporting any non-working or missing equipment, running a fair and impartial election, keeping order in the polling place, maintaining a campaign-free zone, removing any campaign literature left by voters, leaving the polling place room in the same condition as when I arrived, and keeping the polling place open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

As I was soon to discover, there was much more to the job than what was outlined in the description.

On a rainy Saturday morning in the beginning of March, I attended election judge training. We were given our election judge handbooks and shown how to use and set up the new electronic poll books and the ballot scanners. Our instructor told us not to bother calling her office with any problems on Election Day, unless we had a huge issue on our hands—she said they would be too busy dealing with precincts which did not have any judges show up to staff them at all.

Finals week arrived, and I came down with a horrible cold. However, I still had to be at Andrew Carnegie School by 5:00 a.m. to set up the polls that would open at 6:00. When I arrived, I met my teammates. None of the Republican judges showed, so there were three judges for our precinct when we were supposed to have five. Since Election Day is set up to have five election judges at a precinct, this meant we would have to take over the work of the missing judges and would have very little break time in a fifteen-hour day. The other two women I was working with had both been election judges before and were residents of Hyde Park.

The election materials were set up in the school’s gym. The polling place had three precincts: 34st, 24th, and 26th, each with its own corner. I was assigned to the 24th. Set-up went smoothly, except that our ballot scanner did not work for the first hour.

The March 15th primary election was the first election after Illinois’s new same-day registration law took effect. This measure was put in place to increase voter turnout and make the voting process as easy and accessible as possible for eligible voters. This meant we had a person in each precinct who was in charge of registering voters in addition to the three election judges. This also meant that the 31st precinct had a busy day. The 31st precinct contains the University of Chicago’s Renée Granville-Grossman and Burton-Judson residence halls. Students from those dorms were coming in all day to same-day register. At around 5:00 p.m., about twenty students were still in line, and they had to wait around an hour to vote. The 31st precinct’s election judges got so sick of dealing with students that they stopped even bothering to look students up, and would send them to our precinct. When they did, I would ask them which dorm them lived in and send them right back. By law, we could not help register voters from another precinct. The 31st precinct’s judges glared at us throughout the day.

One of the other judges I was working with gave me the inside scoop on the Election Day drama. Apparently, the 31st precinct judges worked together every year and in the words of my fellow judge, “think they own the place and can do whatever they want.” From speaking to other judges, I also discovered that people often request to work with the same election judge groups every year, and election day can become very cliquey, with different precincts blaming each other for not working hard enough or assisting each other when needed.  

As we tried to sort out the voters who came in for same-day registration, we used electronic poll books to look up voters and issue them ballots. In the past, Chicago polling places used boxes of cards containing registered voters’ information, which election judges would have to flip through to find each voter’s information before issuing a paper ballot request. Of course, the switch to an electronic system also came with a change in protocol—which would of been fine had all of the judges been informed of the same protocol at the different trainings they had attended. I had been told that the ballot requests still needed to be filled out, while the others were told that the electronic system had replaced them. For the first hour, my fellow 24th precinct judges and I did not have the voters fill out the ballot requests, but after observing the other precincts, we realized the voters were actually supposed to fill them out. Other than that, the electronic poll books worked well, once I had carefully positioned my table in the place which gave me the strongest WiFi signal.

I had no problem using the poll book, but when my shift looking up voters ended, I handed it off to a fellow judge, an older lady who clearly did not have a lot of experience working with electronics. After a few minutes, we had a line of seven angry voters wondering why it was taking so long to get their ballots. The voters getting angry did not speed up the process, and only managed to upset my fellow judge even more. She was determined to work her shift at the poll book, even after I volunteered to take over again. We only solved the problem when the third judge stepped in to help her and I took over signing ballots and helping voters put their ballots through the scanner.

The polls were open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. I had woken up at 4:15 a.m., gotten to the polling place at 5:00 a.m., and had not left the entire day. By the time the doors closed at 7:00 p.m., I was fighting to keep my eyes open. But by law, we had to keep voting going until all the voters who had arrived earlier got to vote. Because so many students were trying to register with the 31st precinct, there was a massive line. One of the judges from the precinct I was working went through the line asking if there was anyone from the 24th precinct who still needed to vote. She didn’t find anyone, so we began packing up. After we had put away the poll books and ballot counter, two confused-looking women wandered up and said they had been in the line but had just realized they were in the 24th precinct. At that point, we could not set up all the election materials again, so they had to cast provisional ballots. In observing the process of counting up the votes and adding provisional ballots, I realized that even a competent team of election judges could easily lose votes.

By 8:30, we had packed everything up. One of the judges had signed up to return all the materials and tallies for our precinct to the Chicago Board of Elections warehouse, but I got to go back to my dorm and sleep.

What began as an effort to carry out my civic duty ended up being the most exhausting and hectic day of my life. I experienced firsthand how little election judges are paid for the work that they do, the confusion that occurs due to the lack of communication, the exhaustion election judges feel after working a fifteen-hour day, and the potential to lose people’s votes. In order to ensure that the democratic process is being properly carried out I would advocate for making sure that there are enough election judges in each precinct and that all the judges are fully informed on policies and how to work the equipment, and I would put the judges on shifts so they are not working fifteen hours straight and are alert at all times.   

This year’s primary election had one of the highest turnout rates in Illinois history. The issue was not getting people out to vote; it was the voting process itself. If we do not take the time to address problems at the polling place, not only will we lose people’s votes, but incompetence and disorganization will frustrate voters and prevent them from taking the time to come back and vote in the next election. I remember one woman who had been sent to three different polling places by various different election judges. None of them had known how to look up her precinct and she had been driving around Chicago all day trying to find out where her polling place was. She was determined to vote, but naturally was upset about the ordeal she had been through in order to do so. These are the types of situations we must try to avoid through proper training of election judges.

Three weeks after the election, I received a $170 check in the mail—$130 for election day and $40 for training. I worked 19 hours and 30 minutes, including training, which comes out to be less than the $10-an-hour minimum wage in Chicago. Election judging takes much more than minimum-wage skill, and when our democracy depends on our ability to effectively cast our vote, should not be treated as such.   

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Sarah Wasik

Sarah Wasik is a fourth-year double majoring in Public Policy and Philosophy. She has spent her summers working campaigns and interning at both the state and federal levels of government. When she isn’t writing, reading, or learning more about policy and politics, she is probably running up and down the lakefront path or spending time with friends.


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