What Democracy Looks Like

The author (middle) with fellow Election Judges Lichelle (left) and Gwenetta.

Last week was Election Day. It is truly one of the times when you can see Democracy at work. I got up early to vote, walked across the street to our polling station, and was greeted by five people sitting behind a desk. One of them checked me in and another handed me a ballot. I selected the closest booth and proceeded to connect parts of arrows to mark my votes.

Illinois Ballot

In Illinois, we connect the front and back parts of an arrow, with a straight line, to cast our vote. [Photo courtesy of Chicago Election Board]

Throughout the United States, the people at the polls who supervise polling precincts have various titles. In Chicago, they are called Election Judges. They are responsible for ensuring the proper and orderly voting in local precincts and, as court-appointed workers, determine if someone is eligible to vote.

In the 2012 November election, I became an Election Judge. I wanted to see, firsthand, how the voting process worked.

Two weeks prior to election day, I joined hundreds of other Election Judges in the auditorium of a local community college. I discovered that those who like to have a hand in the democratic process are a motley group ― men and women, young and old, single and married, parents and grandparents, well-dressed, and some not so well-dressed. There were also some very young people. In 41, of the 50, states high school students are eligible to serve as Student Election Judges, so long as they are in good academic standing. In the most recent Chicago election, more than 4,000 Election Judges were high school students.

That day, I learned how to assemble voting booths, set up electronic voting equipment, and proper procedures to check-in voters. I also learned what to do in a dozen different urgent situations, including how to handle difficult people. We were told to prepare to be challenged by some voters, and to be wary of those who would try to vote in a precinct where they are not registered ― one of the red flags of possible fraud. By early afternoon, we had finished the training, and I went home with a thick guidebook of illustrated instructions.

In Chicago, polls open at 6AM. My assigned location was 943 West Washington Street ― a few blocks from my neighborhood grocery store. We were required to check-in at 5AM, and I arrived at 4:50AM to find two members of our team already there ― Lichelle, a young mother of three, and Gwenetta, a grandmother with several young and grown grandchildren. Both had previous experience as election judges and, because there was so much to do and so many procedures to remember, I was glad to be working with more experienced team members.

Lichelle and Gwenetta were neighbors in the same small apartment complex close to Chinatown. Neither owned a car. When I arrived, some of the booths were already assembled. I came to find out, Lichelle had come to the building the previous night, on her own time, to begin setting up our polling station. From her previous experience, she knew that the hour we had been given before the doors opened was not nearly enough time to complete the lengthy list of necessary tasks. Hopefully, I thought to myself, the fourth and fifth election judges, who had yet to arrive, would also have experience. My hopes were dashed after Lichelle spoke with Chicago election headquarters.

It’s just the three of us, today,” said Lichelle. “No one else is coming and they told us we couldn’t swear in anyone else.”

Her words caught me by surprise considering the amount of work that needed to be done.

Our team’s plastic blue tub containing the paper ballots sent through the voting machine.

In a pinch, election judges have the power to swear in other people into the position. We were in a very tight pinch, with only the three of us handling a precinct with thousands of voters, however, without permission from the Chicago Board of Elections, our hands were tied. The three of us would have to do the work of five people.

We hand-assembled dozens of booths and tested the electronic equipment. Then, we broke the seals on the doors of the portable closet which held the paper ballots, unbundled the forms and stacked them into proper piles, then took our seats.

At 6AM, the front doors swung open, and Chicago’s voters rushed in. They were all in a hurry to vote so that they could catch their trains to work.

In order to be eligible to vote, in our precinct, one needed to have registered in advance. Since there was no need to show personal identification, signatures and home addresses were what we counted on to identify the identity of a voter. To verify a voter’s signature, you would thumb through one of two thick books, until you found the voter’s page, which contained a copy of his or her previous signature. You would tear out half of the page, ask the voter to sign the paper, then compare the fresh scrawl with the previous one. If it matched, and they also stated a matching name and home address, you handed them a ballot and a pen. After the first dozen voters, my fingers began smarting from dozens of paper cuts.

There was no time for lunch. 2012 was a presidential election year and, although Chicago Board of Election numbers show that only 24.1 percent, or 311,000 of Chicago’s 1.29 million registered voters cast their ballots, it felt like Chicago voters came out en masse. While checking in voters, we would restock ballot piles, help lost voters by researching their correct voting precincts, and troubleshoot when the electronic equipment got jammed and wouldn’t swallow a ballot.

Chicago, unfortunately, has a long-standing reputation of election fraud. In fact, the laughable unofficial election slogan is, “Vote early and often!” So, in a city like Chicago, one of the most important roles of an election judge is to guard the sanctity of the vote and prevent any improprieties from happening at your precinct.

In analyzing the voting process, I couldn’t see how it was possible to game the system. Election Judges seemed to be randomly assigned to precincts (I was not placed in my home precinct,) most did not know one other, and there were many overlapping details in put place that kept procedures in check. We had to initial every paper ballot used. Electronic voting results were backed up by rolls of printed records, which had to have our signatures.

The system, within the confines of the polling stations, seemed tamper-proof. But, as it turned out during the November 2014 general election, it was possible to influence the system by messing with the Election Judges even before they arrived to work. According to some poll watchers strange calls, made by unknown parties to election judges, were allegedly made in an effort to disrupt Illinois’ electoral process.

According to the Chicago Sun Times, “…election judges in Chicago received mysterious automated phone calls with false instructions over the weekend. Election officials said the calls were part of “a serious attempt to disrupt” the voting process. Some of the calls informed election judges that they needed to undergo additional training. Other calls told them that they were required to vote a certain way in order to work as election judges. Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, said they’re unsure how many of the misleading calls went out…”

“Given the level of response that we received, we suspect it was a large number of people — we don’t know how large,” he told the Sun Times.

As a result, some Election Judges never showed up to work their assigned precincts, which meant that no one, in that precinct, could vote. Spokespeople from both the Democratic and Republican parties deny that the calls were made by anyone from their campaigns. When the election was over, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn had been unseated by millionaire Republican Bruce Rauner.

I chose not to serve as an election judge, during the November 2013 election, or in the most recent March 2015 election. I fact, after the 2012 election, I never served, again. I continue to do my part by voting, and encouraging others to vote.

Lichelle turns in all of our paperwork, extra locks, and keys at the check-in station.

Looking back, being part of the 2012 election process was one of the best experiences of my life. While I would have happily volunteered to experience it all, we did get paid. I received $45 for attending a three-hour training session, and $125 for working 14 hours on election day. Those who agree to allow the use of her cell phones (only one person per precinct,) to communicate with the Election Board officials, receive an additional $25. Finally, the person who agrees to deliver the final ballots to a central check-in station receives another $25.

The day for an Election Judge, however, runs longer than 14 hours. Most arrive prior to 5AM and, when the polls close at 7PM, the job isn’t finished. It takes a few more hours to properly close a polling station. Booths need to be disassembled and repacked carefully into the large plastic cases in which they arrived. All of the equipment, including electronic machines, need to be placed back into the wheeled closet and sealed with a lock. Lock numbers need to be verified, written down on forms and signed. Ballots need to be sealed into properly numbered bags and placed in a plastic blue bin with wheels. After the blue bin is locked and sealed it must be taken to a designated check-in location.

Lichelle was designated to deliver the blue bin to our Ward 25 check-in location at an elementary school about a mile away. She didn’t have a car, so I offered to drive. Gwenetta accompanied us, so that I could drive them both home, afterwards. When we got to the school, there was a block-long line of dozens of other people toting their blue bins. We waited in line to check in the bin, then proceeded to go to the basement to turn in the knapsack of locks, keys, and seals.

Election Day day was over ― we were finally free to go home. We snapped a photo of the three us on my iPhone.

That cold and rainy night, I drove Lichelle and Gwenetta home. We hugged each other goodbye and I watched as they hurried through a broken parking lot, jumping over puddles, until they disappeared into separate buildings. I asked if they wanted to have dinner, on me, but it was late and there were children waiting to be fed and tucked into bed.

Although we promised to stay in touch the three of us never saw each other, again. But, each time election day rolls around, I think of those two women and how, on that cold November day, we were partners in the safekeeping of the process of Democracy. ⚑