Last week, when Minnesotans stood in line at their various polling places to exercise their civic duty on Election Day, few probably gave much thought to the people they saw working at the polls — other than to perhaps wonder why they couldn’t make the lines move any faster. For me, however, last Tuesday was different, as I was one of the people controlling the lines.
For those who don’t know, the people who run the polling places during elections are called “election judges.” This year, after some encouragement from my coworkers at the House of Representatives, I volunteered to serve as an election judge in Ramsey County. It was a first for me, and I’m glad I did it. Not only was it a fascinating experience; I also learned more about elections than most people will ever know (or would probably care to know, truthfully).
Now that I’ve had a chance to collect my thoughts on what happened that day — and before they fade from memory completely — I wanted to share some ideas on things that I think could be easily improved about the way polling places operate.
But first, let me say that volunteering as an election judge was a great experience, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who cares about the integrity of the electoral process. I was surprised to learn that, in Ramsey County at least, election judges are actually paid, but I honestly would have done it for free. The other judges I worked with were great, and it was gratifying to be able to work with such a dedicated group of people.
That said, it seemed to me like there are a few glaring weak points in the way that polling places are run, and I’d like to offer my thoughts on how they might be fixed, or at least improved.
1) Find More Judges
Okay, first a little background. After my application to become an election judge was accepted, I received notification that I was to attend a two-hour training session one weeknight in late October and then show up at the El Rio Vista Recreation Center (a.k.a. Neighborhood House, a.k.a. the Wellstone Center) on Election Day. At 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 4, I reported for duty and was selected (rather arbitrarily) to serve as a registration judge — making sure that unregistered voters are properly registered according to state law before they can vote. As it turns out, this is a fairly frenetic job.
I was extremely fortunate in that my partner at the registration table was a friendly and knowledgeable St. Paul librarian who had worked in several previous elections and knew the ins and outs of the registration process by heart. Without her, my day would’ve been a lot more difficult. (She also spoke fluent Spanish — something that comes in handy in the heart of District del Sol.) One thing I learned last Tuesday is that having a group of quality people running a polling place is critical — and there simply are not enough poll workers to go around.
Between me and the librarian, we registered 236 new voters during the course of the day — approximately 118 each. Many of these people had to be vouched for by voters already registered in the precinct — a process that basically doubles the amount of paperwork involved. Many of the new registrants spoke little or no English, which naturally made it difficult to explain to them what kinds of documentation they needed to produce in order to be eligible to vote. At various points throughout the day, communication issues ground the registration process to a halt, forcing frustrated would-be voters to languish in line. Adding a few more bodies to the registration table could’ve easily simplified things. The counties need more judges, so if you’re reading this, please, volunteer to be an election judge next time.
2) Get Some Computers
At my polling place, one of the most common problems we faced throughout the day was having to redirect voters who were attempting to vote in the wrong precinct. (A great many people seem to think that either you can vote anywhere you want to, or that your proper polling place is simply whichever one is closest to your house.) Unfortunately, our repeated attempts to steer confused voters to their correct polling places quickly turned into an exercise in futility — one that could’ve been avoided with nothing more than a laptop computer and a wi-fi Internet connection. Even an iPhone would’ve worked better than what we had.
What we had was a pair of “precinct finders” — red-covered, plastic-bound flip books that allow poll workers to determine a voter’s ward and precinct by looking up their house number and street name. These precinct finders, though accurate, are extremely difficult to read and serve as a virtual catalyst for human error. An inattentive poll worker can easily misdirect a voter to the wrong precinct — and in fact, an election judge in a neighboring precinct did exactly that when they mistakenly sent someone to our precinct, forcing me to explain to the frustrated voter that in fact they had been in the right place the first time and now had to go back if they still wanted to vote.
Moreover, since the precinct finders only included information for Ramsey County, anyone from outside the county who showed up at our location was basically S.O.L. We had a number of residents from Dakota County — and one from as far away as Park Rapids — who for some reason thought they could vote in our precinct. We informed them that they had to vote elsewhere; however, we had no phone numbers for their home counties or anyone else who could actually direct them to the proper polling place, so we essentially sent them away with nothing. Did they actually end up going to the right place and voting that day? Who knows.
And thusly did we squander untold tracts of time dealing with problems that could’ve been solved in a matter of seconds with a simple trip to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Web site. But even when the precinct finder could tell us where a voter was supposed to go, we had no way of directing them there; all we had for them was a building name and an address. Almost none of the judges — myself included — knew where these places were — and the few who did were usually tied up taking care of other things. We had no phone numbers for the other precincts, and no way to provide directions to the locations of the polls. We had a pair of maps on hand, but they were utterly useless. (Try giving out driving directions to a Somali immigrant sometime using a map with no street names on it and let me know how it goes.)
God only knows how many people didn’t get to vote Tuesday because I didn’t have access to Google Maps. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for Best Buy or some other retailer to purchase some good will and remedy the problem by lending wireless devices to polling places on Election Day. Any way you do it, the outdated “precinct finders” should only be used as a backup, or as a way to double-check what can be found online.
3) Update the Literature
At one point during the day, a dispute emerged over whether cell phone bills qualified as acceptable documentation for proof of residency purposes. After some discussion, we determined (correctly, apparently) that, yes, a current cell phone bill is acceptable as proof of a voter’s current residence. The confusion resulted from the literature available to us at the table, which said “telephone” bills were acceptable, but did not discuss cell phones specifically.
Once again, if we had had Internet access, we could’ve resolved the dispute simply by consulting the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Web site, or perhaps looking up the relevant statute. Barring that, the literature made available to poll workers on Election Day definitely needs to be updated to include answers to specific questions that reflect the realities of a rapidly changing modern existence.
Additionally, some kind of posters or even handouts should be available at each polling place that explain in several different languages (especially Spanish, Somali and Hmong) the process of voting and the documentation needed from each voter in order to be able to vote.
4) Have Someone Observe the Observers
Apparently, it’s customary to have DFL and Republican observers hang around the polling place on Election Day to watch over the process. Our location had one of each — both of them young guys, both clean-cut looking. They sat off to the side of the registration table and watched attentively over us as we signed up new voters. Both of our observers were polite, respectful and even helpful at times; apparently, though, some polling places were not as lucky as ours.
After some careful consideration, I’ve decided not to get into any details about the shenanigans that I heard took place in other precincts that day. There were even some shenanigans in our precinct — not from the observers, but rather from members of the public — but I’m not going into any details about those either. Suffice it to say that someone should always be on hand to watch the watchers on Election Day.