As Election Day rapidly approaches on Nov. 6, some Maryland jurisdictions are still in need of a little help at the polls.
“To hire election judges, it’s one of the most difficult tasks election officials have,” said Joe Torre, the Election Director for the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections. “It gets harder and harder every year.”
Every polling place in the state is supposed to be staffed by at least four election judges, said Donna Duncan, the Assistant Deputy for Election Policy for the Maryland State Board of Elections.
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“We use in the neighborhood of 22,000, at least, election judges statewide,” Duncan said. Each of the state’s 24 local boards of election (23 county boards, and Baltimore City), are responsible for staffing their polling places with these judges. “This is truly the local operation’s logistics.”
In some jurisdiction, that challenge is greater than others.
“I need to make sure I have 3,000 judges so I can have substitutes downtown for those who don’t show up,” said Armstead Jones, the Election Director for the Baltimore City Board of Elections. In past elections he’s had close to 700 judges who don’t show up on Election Day. Jones said he’s run elections with about 2,500 judges in the past, but it’s not ideal.
Most city polling places may have between 1,000 to 3,000 or more registered voters assigned to them, and the more voters you get, the more judges you need.
Torre said he needs 2,501 judges to staff his 195 precincts, but he always hires 100 Democrats and 100 Republicans as “standby judges.” The additional personnel meet at one of three locations in the county at 5:30 a.m. and wait to see if they need to be assigned out to fill vacancies on election day. In times of dire shortages, judges can be sent from one jurisdiction to another, and Torre said he has sent judges to Baltimore before to help when the city is shorthanded.
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The work shift for judges is long on Election Day, as they often need to arrive at their assigned polling place by about 5:45 a.m.. With polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., judges often don’t end their days until around 9:30 p.m.
Judges fill one of six roles:
- Check in - greet voters and check to make sure they are registered and at the correct polling place
- Ballot distribution - distribute ballots and explain how the ballot works and how to properly complete it
- Provisional ballot judges - voters who can’t get their registration confirmed, are at the wrong polling place, or have some other issue that keeps them from voting with a standard ballot, instead get provisional ballots, which are collected separately and counted after they are verified
- Voting area - walk voters to the booths/partitions where they can privately fill out their ballot, making sure no one is using a phone or influence another’s vote, aid where appropriate
- Voting unit judges - help voters feed their paper ballots into machines to be tabulated
- Chief judge - oversee the operations of the entire polling place and handle any issues or disputes
“They could be checking in voters,” Jones said. “They could be assisting voters in the booth. They could be at the door escorting.”
Typically local election boards try to assign judges to their home precincts. Seniority can be a factor as well, as judges who have worked multiple elections can get more convenient assignments or move up the hierarchy to become chief judges.
Chief judges make $225 for the day’s work. All other judges take home $165. All judges must attend at least one mandatory training session, where they are paid $20 for their time, before becoming a judge.
The primary qualification to be a judge is the ability to read and write. Any registered voter in Maryland is eligible to be an election judge, as long as they complete the required training. The average age of a judge is 62, Torre said, but residents as young as 16 can serve in the role. Though they aren’t able to vote yet, 16 year olds can file, with their registration kicking in when they turn 18.
Despite garnering the best compensation, chief judges are often the trickiest roles to fill. Each polling place is supposed to have at least two chief judges, and they are supposed to be of opposing political parties, a formidable challenge in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a roughly 2 to 1 margin. Though it’s preferred each judge is from one of the two major parties, Duncan said, one judge could be a registered Democrat or Republican, while the other could be unaffiliated.
Torre said he starts his recruiting process about 10 months before an election, reaching out to past judges 14 months ahead of Election Day so that he can gauge numbers. Regardless of seniority, judges must be trained for every election, primary and general, particularly as technology changes.
Baltimore and other local boards of elections are still trying to recruit additional judges. Residents should contact their local board if they are interested in filling the role. The last training session for Baltimore will take place at University of Baltimore in the days prior to the election.
Despite the challenges of recruiting, training, and disseminating these armies of election workers, Torre still sees the process as an affirmation of what makes the political system in this country strong - the fact that it is created for and administered by its citizens.
“It’s nice to have the public,” Torre said. “This country is wonderful because the public actually comes out and helps us.”
“The way the process is set up,” Jones said, “without them, there is no Election Day.”