Training to be an election judge

Last night from 6 to 9, I went through training to be an election judge. I'll be a Ballot Judge, responsible for ensuring that voters get the right paper ballots, if they choose to vote on paper—they can vote electronically with a touch screen as well.

Our county was apparently the first in the country to create "vote centers," so any registered voter within the county can go to any polling place. It's extremely convenient for voters, and has been a model that's been picked up elsewhere in Colorado and around the U.S.

The trick is that when people had to go to a precinct-specific location to vote, then reporting results by precinct was no big deal. When they can go to any of the vote centers, the ballots need to be able to be tracked by precinct and precinct tallies need to be collected in another way at the end of the day.

Although the elections office now only needs to find, staff, and supply thirty-three vote centers, each center needs to be prepared to provide a voter with any of 167 ballots.

Learning how this happens was pretty fascinating. The process is well thought out and looks like it will run smoothly. Each vote center starts with an original stock of ballots that, through math and guessing, reflects what history and experience suggest will be needed in that location. A computer program on site updates the inventory as every ballot is issued, and is set to indicate low supplies on any ballots. There's a runner system to resupply, if necessary, from another center (including the main one, at the courthouse).

It takes six judges to handle each center's paper ballot area. That's all I know about right now. The judges work in pairs, each of which has to consist of people with different registration status—you'd never have two Democrats, two Republicans, or two Greens (or whatever) working together. As an unaffiliated voter, I'm a wild card who can be assigned anywhere, as are the student judges—high schoolers, and the only exceptions to the rule that judges have to be registered voters (they're too young), although it was clear last night that the students who have been working on one campaign or another were going to identify themselves as party-affiliated for the purposes of election day.

I do have strong opinions on most of the issues being voted in this election, although they will be left far away when I do this job. I look forward to working in a balanced group with people of other convictions, especially since we will not be talking one word of politics in the vote centers . . . and will even need to ask anyone who turns up to vote in a t-shirt with any election-related information on it to step into the restroom and put the shirt on inside out before coming in to vote.

Next Tuesday will be a long day. We have to show up at our assigned places by 6 a.m. Anyone who is not there by 6:15 will be replaced by a backup. Voting begins at 7 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m., and the original commitment says judges will need to be available until 8 p.m., although the reality apparently is that judges stay until the job is done. The trainer wouldn't predict when that would be, but indicated that even if the day is complicated we should be done by 10 p.m. and we won't be spending the night there. After the voters have finished for the day (and anyone in line at 7 p.m. can still vote), there's a lot of tallying to do, although the votes are counted elsewhere (they're picked up during the day).

We cannot leave the vote center once we are there until we are dismissed at the end of the day, we need to bring all our own food, and we will not have access to fridge or microwave (it's okay to bring a cooler). Cell phones cannot be on or used in the vote center, although we can check messages and make short calls during any breaks.

The trainer was thorough, clear, and had good senses of both responsibility and humor.

Early and mail-in voting is now going on, and people have been strongly encouraged to use those voting methods, but still some of the vote centers here may process as many as 15,000 paper ballots. There are just over 174,000 voters in the county, and with the people who may show up and vote provisional ballots (they are qualified, but the county does not have, say, a confirmed address for them) there might be a final total from here—of all ballot types—of over 200,000 votes. People who have not received a paper ballot have been mailed express voter cards with all the necessary data (including ballot style) printed on it; anyone who forgets the express card can fill out a signature card on site.

While the early and mail-in ballots are already being counted, no one yet knows even starter results because they will not be tallied until starting at 7 p.m. next Tuesday.

By the way, I can go online to make sure my mail-in ballot has been received by the county, and if it hasn't I could vote a provisional ballot at the vote center next Tuesday that would be counted if my mail-in still hadn't shown up.

Rules governing provisional ballots were instituted modified at the federal level for more consistency among the states after the last 2000 presidential election, when people were turned away from the polls in some parts of the country. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 assures that ANYONE who shows up at a vote center can vote, on a regular ballot if their registration is in order and everything checks out, and on a provisional ballot if there are any questions. There are still variations in the way states use provisional ballots. Here, anyone who votes two (or more!) ballots, whether provisional or regular, will be checked out; all but one of the ballots will be disqualified; and if there's any hint of fraud . . . like something beyond normal "I didn't remember whether I mailed it or not" . . . the district attorney's office takes over immediately. [Did some research: Additions are underlined.]

Provisional ballots need to be counted by fourteen days after the election, and representatives of each party are normally on the phone right after election day to ask how many provisionals there are, to see whether any races could change results based on that late count. The trainer estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of the provisional ballots check out as okay and are counted in the final results.

I left the session last night hungry (it's hard to eat dinner when the work day ends at 5:30 and the meeting, across town, starts at 6 . . . half a PB&J had to tide me over) and also reassured that the voting process in this county will be orderly and as fair as is humanly possible. There are paper trails for all ballots, paper and electronic, and there have never been any chads here. The system looks controlled, professional, and balanced.

I'm impressed with the paper-ballot part of the operation, and what I can see from this angle of the rest of it.


5 thoughts on “Training to be an election judge”

  1. Deb, thanks so much for this detailed and helpful post. I went through poll monitor training the other night, and even though I keep up-to-date on voting problems, it was still eye-opening. I wish I shared your optimism about the process. I applaud Denver (I assume that’s where you are) for opening vote centers — jurisdictions that make it easier for people to vote rather than harder seem to be a rarity. Enjoy your very long day on Tuesday! I wish I had the stamina to be an election judge…

    ~~Marcia Ford, author of “We the Purple: Faith, Politics and the Independent Voter”

  2. Marcia, I’m in Larimer County, about an hour north of Denver. I just checked the status of my mail-in ballot: completed ballot has been received.

    Savannah, thanks for the tips. The day after is already reserved for lunch with friends, a mid-afternoon call with my new business coach, and an evening pre-birthday celebration with friends. I figured low-key would be good, and planned things I would like to do that would not require me to be at my desk trying to make software function correctly.

  3. I’ll second Savannah’s comments: I made the mistake of volunteering for our local literary festival the three days after our election, and I was pretty useless on the first one.

    The best suggestion made to me the first year I worked was to take along more water than you might think you’ll need — talking to people can be very dehydrating, and that will poop you out faster than anything at the end of the day.

    This year, I made certain to have a nice cup of tea left in my thermos for when polls closed, and it was exactly what I needed.

    Interesting to read your account and compare it to our Canadian election process. The place I supervised had six polls (each with a Deputy Returning Officer and a Poll Clerk), with an Information Officer and a Registration Clerk.

    Each poll had 400 (give or take) registered voters, and the ones with a higher proportion of apartments had a fair number of registrants on voting day.

    Turnout was just over half, which was quite depressing, although it was the voting place of our Member of Parliament and the captain of the NHL team. All six polls were counted before 9.

    After all the other paperwork was done and everyone else released, I was responsible to take all the ballot boxes back to the riding office and do clean-up. Was sure glad to see a cold alcoholic beverage in the fridge when we got home at 10:30. 🙂

  4. I think provisional ballots must have been around longer than that, because I remember them from the election of 2004. That was my first experience as an election judge, and there was already a very detailed section on provisional ballots in the manual, so I’m guessing they came in a while ago. In 2006, I was a supply judge, who is the election judge who brings some of the supplies needed, including (at that time) the electronic voting machine. This year I’ll be a supply judge again, and this year some of the heavier equipment is being delivered ahead of time to the polling place and stored there in a locked closet.

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