Election Day is the moment when all the hard work of campaigning, canvassing, house parties, fundraising, debates, and getting out the vote comes to its conclusion. It is imperative that the people working the polls that day are knowledgable and passionate about civic duty, as they are the ones tasked with helping their fellow citizens exercise a fundamental right of our democracy: voting.
In a suburb in Cook County, Illinois, Jody and Bob Wilson are those people. Jody has worked as a poll worker, and Bob as an equipment judge, for multiple elections. I spoke with them about their experiences, their favorite stories, and their ongoing enthusiasm for this work.
Note: States may call their poll workers different things. Poll workers can also be called election judges or election workers. These words may be used interchangeably in the interview.
Here is our interview:
TS: When did you first get involved with working at the polls?
JODY: I got started in 2008.
BOB: I was so alarmed and upset by the hanging chad situation in the 2000 presidential election, I got involved in the very next election. So 2002.
TS: Why did you decide to get involved in this way?
JODY: Honestly, I thought who better to work the polls than people who care.
BOB: I been working with computers for a long time. Built my first one in 1979. After leaving corporate America, I started my own company building websites, including ones for stock trading. So I understand security pretty well. When folks in Cook County got enamoured with using electronic voting machines, I decided I wanted to learn first-hand how the process worked.
TS: What was your first experience like working the polls?
JODY: The first Election Day I worked, I showed up at the polling location really early. Polling opens at 6am in our county. The supervisor at the location knew this was my first shift and so suggested that I be the person to physically open the location. She told me to say, “Hear ye, Hear ye, the polls are now open.” I opened the doors, and there in front of me was a long line of 75 people who were already there! I burst into tears and they all applauded. It was amazing to experience.
TS: Can you have any influence over how the polls are run at your location?
BOB: At our precinct, we’ve had 2 GOP and 2 Democratic election judges. We worked together to make sure that the procedures were fairly followed. We decided that our primary value was that we were here to serve voters, and not act like we were there to rule over the polling place. Over the years, we learned to set up the precinct in a way to make it easier to vote on paper. In our precinct, voters learned that paper was far more efficient.
We used far more of the available space in our precinct and so could set up a lot more polling stations. In 2008, we saw a huge surge in voters and our precinct got people in and out efficiently. Other polling places in our county had long waiting periods.
JODY: Yes, and based on that, at my polling place we got into the habit of asking voters, once they’d checked in, if they wanted to vote on paper.
TS: What kind of difficult situations have you encountered at the polls?
JODY: There is a rule that there is no electioneering within 100 feet of the polling location. You need to tell people to back off from time to time.
BOB: In reflecting on my 14 years of doing this, honestly, it’s gone really smoothly. We have a high percentage of voters in the precinct who are regular voters. I do remember one gentleman who voted on paper. The machine that the paper ballot goes through will reject ballots with over-voting (i.e. if you voted for two candidates for one race). He had to redo his ballot 3 times. After the third rejection, he growled and left.
TS: Do you have an Election Day story that stands out in your mind?
JODY: In our county, folks in assisted living get to vote one day early. I was at a home (where my mom was at the time) and a woman who was 102 came to vote. She was born before suffrage and pointed out to me proudly that she had voted for all women. Another time, a woman approached me and told me that the first time she voted she was in Vienna, and it was nerve-wracking because a line of men in brown shirts with guns were standing at the back of the room.
TS: That sends chills down my spine. Do you encourage others to get involved as poll workers?
JODY: Of course. I tell people to Google “Become an election judge” and the name of your county. If I meet someone who speaks another language, I definitely encourage them to get involved because that can really help on Election Day.
TS: Bob, I understand you’ve gotten fairly involved with the discussion around balloting and electronic voting in Illinois. Can you tell me more about that?
BOB: When Cook County was looking into using electronic voting machines, I wanted to learn everything there was about them. I ended up helping to found the Illinois Ballot Integrity Project to foster the conversation around the issue and to educate and inform state and local politicians about our findings. We learned how vulnerable these machines were to hacking, for example, and there were also numerous reports of the machines malfunctioning. We also learned that there was a “hole” in the Cook County registration system where a hacker could change a party registration, the address of polling locations, etc. We went public with the information. We did get some small stories and an interview with the district attorney’s office. Ultimately, our group unanimously agreed that paper ballots were the way to go.
TS: What can people expect if they decide they want to try being a poll worker?
JODY: Nowadays, you can sign up online. The county will get you trained–some of the training may be online, there will be some videos, and material you need to read. There is an open book test to make sure you understand the rules. All in all, it doesn’t take very long.
BOB: If people want to be an equipment judge, the training is a bit more involved. You’ll need to be able to set-up and trouble-shoot the voting equipment.
TS: When is the best time to get signed up to be a poll worker?
JODY: Usually, 1-3 months before Election Day. So now is a great time for people to check with their county!
TS: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about working the polls?
BOB: It’s really important that voters know that towards the end of the day, that they need to stay in line. The rule is that if you are in line when polls close, you get to vote. Please tweet this over and over on Election Day. If you are working the polls, you can walk up and down the waiting line and explain to them that this is the rule.
JODY: There is community, a chance to be in the thick of it and help ensure that at your polling place everything is carried out as it should be. Even if people decide not to work the polls, I would encourage them to thank the poll workers. It is a long, exhausting day and these are folks that take their civic duty seriously.
Postscript: You can check the requirements for poll workers in your state by going to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, but you can also just Google your state (or county) and “poll worker” to get the information you need. Challenge yourself to take action right now — even a baby step to locate the information you need online!