MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is November 9th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.
Over a million Americans visited the polls on Tuesday. Most of them went to cast a ballot. But some were there to work.
Election judges are in charge of checking in voters and distributing ballots. But there’s more to their job than just handing out those “I Voted” stickers.
Anna Johansen started working the polls in her home state of Illinois when she was 16. Today, she takes us behind the scenes on election day.
ANNA JOHANSEN: It’s five AM. The sky is still dark, the heater has just kicked in, and we have one hour until the polls open.
JUDGE: I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Illinois, that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of Judge of Elections, according to the best of my ability.
Every election judge in Illinois takes this oath of office.
Group: I do.
It means that today, we’re in charge of the voting process. Voting. That hallowed pillar of democracy. But election judges? We’re not exactly the Guardians of the Galaxy. We’re just ordinary people who sometimes make mistakes.
Want some proof? When we start to set up the equipment for checking in voters…we can’t figure out how to plug it in.
AUDIO: Where is the plug for this? Which cable is it? There are so many! Oh oh oh….Wow, I’m an idiot…
Pro tip: there’s a bright yellow label that says, “Power Cord.” Duly noted.
We all went to the same two-hour training session. We all learned how to handle this equipment. But that was back in September, so we’re a little rusty.
LEAH: I literally have no idea what I’m doing.
That’s my sister, Leah. She’s 16. It’s her first time working as an election judge.
LEAH: Like, literally, no idea. I don’t remember anything from training.
At six AM, we open the polls.
My sister watches me check in the first few voters so she can refresh her memory. Then I let her take over.
LEAH: Would you like to vote paper or touchscreen? I just need you to verify that this information is correct, and sign your name here.
There is no “head judge,” or chain of command. We’re supposed to work as a team…but sometimes that’s a bit of a problem.
LEAH: They all had different opinions on how things should be set up, and they were all convinced that their way was correct.
Sometimes, it’s a triviality.
LEAH: Like where to place tables. Everyone had a different opinion as to how the tables should be set up.
Sometimes, it’s crucial: like the procedure for new registrations. One judge quotes the manual; another points to their notes from training. Both say they’re right. It can get a little intense. Sometimes, we have to call the county clerk’s office for help.
Meanwhile, voters keep on coming. One jokes about voting multiple times. Another asks if his ballot is safe from the Russians.
The polls close at seven PM, sharp. We start packing up the instant the last voter slides his ballot into the scanner. We have nine different ballot tally sheets to fill out.
I’m not afraid of the Russians. I’m afraid of making a mistake and committing accidental treason.
It takes us two hours to get everything squared away.
AUDIO: So I think that’s the last thing, then, right?
Now, we return our ballots and tally sheets to the county clerk. They’ll double and triple check everything we did today.
It’s definitely not a perfect process. Election judges are human…just like voters. But that doesn’t stop us from getting involved in our government “by the people, for the people.”
For WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen reporting from McHenry, Illinois.