Maryland desperately needs election judges for the midterm election
As early voting began in Maryland Thursday, elections officials throughout the state were struggling to find enough election judges to fully staff the polls, worried that the shortage could lead to problems. But they weren’t alone. Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator of the state Board of Elections, says it's a national problem.
“What's happening in Maryland isn't unique,” Charlson said. “It is one of the hardest things for our election officials to do. And this year is particularly hard.”
Part of that can be traced to the pandemic. It has made people more thoughtful about where they want to be and how much they want to be around other people.
“Typically, our poll workers tend to be individuals who are retired, so older, and maybe more sensitive to being out around other people,” Charlson said “So I think the pandemic has made it difficult.”
According to the U.S. Election Assistance Committee (EAC), the average age of poll workers is usually 61 or older, a demographic that is also more at risk from contracting COVID-19.
This is the second general election since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and officials continue to have trouble. Dave Garreis, the elections director in Anne Arundel County, says he was doing fine recruiting judges for the 2020 primary. And then the bottom fell out.
“In March of 2020, we had our roster 100% full,” he recalled. “And then they shut everything down for COVID. And almost overnight, we lost a lot of people.”
He says he’s working hard to rebuild his roster for this election, but COVID isn’t the only problem. There’s the hyper partisanship of the era and reports of physical threats to election judges, fueled in part by Republican claims of voter fraud going back to 2020.
“You can't deny that the constant barrage of negativity just affects people's morale,” he said. “It saps their desire to serve and be a part of the process.”
A Brennan Center for Justice poll last March found one in six election officials had experienced threats because of their job, and 77% said they feel the threats had increased in recent years.
Garries said he wants people to be part of the process because it’s “not the Anne Arundel County board of elections election, it's the citizens of Anne Arundel County, having an election to pick their leaders.”
Charlson said the lack of judges during the July primary led to longer lines at some polling places and it could lead to other problems as some judges have to cover more than one job.
“It's possible that they're performing a job that maybe they weren't fully trained in, or they're tired,” she said. “It's…a long day, they're tired, maybe they put a document or a device in a container that's supposed to be in something else. And then the local election officials have to find that when they get back to the office.”
The polls may open at 7a.m., but election judges are to be at their assigned stations an hour and a half earlier to make sure everything is ready for the first voters. That means setting up the equipment and, among other things, making sure the seals on the electronic polling books and the scanning units are intact and the numbers all match.
And once the polls open, there’s even more to do, said Armstead Jones, Baltimore City’s elections director. The judge’s responsibility is to assist the voter.
“First of all, greet them as they come into the polling place, then direct them to the check-in table where the judge will ask their name so that they can look them up, get them signed in,” he said.
After that, a judge may have to help some voters through the process. Jones concedes that’s a lot to do and a long day, but he says it’s “our civic duty.”
He recalled having done it himself before going to work for the elections board and said he enjoyed it.
“It gave me interaction with neighbors from my community, people I may not have seen in years,” he said. “There’s Miss Sally who's been sick and up in age; haven't seen her.
And it might help that election judges get paid – $200 a day for a regular judge, $250 for a chief judge. For more information, go to your local election board’s website.