I Served As Judge for the Chicago Primary Election

votingFor many, this past Tuesday's Chicago primary election were about selecting their mayoral and aldermanic candidates of choice. For me, it was a very unique challenge....as I served as election judge for the 13th Ward.

What motivated me to such an action? The previous election - more specifically, the use of robocalling to disrupt voting- and potentially influence results -  in our communities. In short, I felt outraged, angry, and motivated to do more than just type an obligatory blog post. (My mom's stories about living across from the Daley family in her childhood, and my father's work for Alderman Majerczyk in the 12th Ward also had some bearing on my desire to get involved). So when my precinct captain encouraged me to take that step, I eagerly accepted - after all, I wanted to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. However, thanks to a variety of other commitments, I was unable to submit my application until a week before the election.

I submitted on Tuesday, and received formal notification of on Saturday. Since there was not enough time for me to attend the optional four-hour training for election judges, I went to the City Board of Elections website and downloaded their information. Kudos to them making this information available online, and greater kudos to a greater embrace of technology. In fact, even checking voters into elections has become much easier, as this video explains:

Since I received the notice after early voting had ended (my timing, not the postal worker's), that meant rushing downtown to vote an absentee ballot. And so I eagerly prepped for my service on Tuesday morning - I was heading for a different precinct than my own, but thankfully it was a short distance away. Assembling a briefcase with water bottle, tablet (with ebooks), composition book (for both professional and personal writing), and snacks, I headed out in the wee hours of Tuesday morning to my destination. When I arrived, we eagerly sorted out roles, and my responsibilities were simple:

  • Activate the white cards for touchscreen voting
  • Help anyone who needed help (while avoiding seeing their ballot); and
  • Hand off the white receipts after people voted, thanking them for their service

Most of the day was spent....well, sitting and waiting for voters. My fellow judges were all really good people, and I wish I had some nice stories about potential fraud, if only to drive traffic to the site. (In fact, throughout the day we only had one glitch - a "spoiled" ballot that was easily fixed). Most of the work of election judging comes the day before/in the morning (with setup) and after polls close with tallying and paperwork. (More about which later). Being outside my home precinct gave me a nice sense of objectivity, with an appropriate outsider's perspective. Just some things that I noticed and/or experienced:

  • For all our talk about Chicago politics, we're not really motivated to vote- Setting aside early voting, the 13th Ward precinct I worked in as judge had 31% of eligible voters heading to this election. (Other than the mayoral race, all other races - including Alderman - were uncontested). This follows overall city patterns in which approximately 33% of voters headed to the polls. In short, it shows that many thought this election was a mere formality....and which says much about the apathy of most Chicago voters.
  • There may be subconscious "digital divide" when assigning touchscreen machines - In this precinct, we had one touchscreen voting machine with eight "regular" voting booths. (Ironically, when I went for absentee voting, there were numerous touchscreen voting machines). Since I do not have any data on how many machines are currently in use, I wonder how those machines are assigned and whether certain wards may have received more. (Not crying foul, mind you - just want more information).
  • Perhaps election judge training shouldn't be "optional" - When I started the process, I had been informed that there is an "optional" four-hour training for judges, and which I was eager to attend. (My only reason for not doing so - I was not provided any information about a Monday training). Although I'm used to learning on the go....perhaps Chicago elections should warrant having people work at their best. (If that meant that I didn't serve this time around, it would not bother me either way). Having a mandatory training - even online - would make things much easier, and more importantly, provide an extra layer of accountability.
  • Post-election wrap up and tallying should be made much easier - Although polls closed at 7:00 pm, we ended up working until about 8:30 on finalizing results. (This was a relatively "easy" election - one judge informed me that tallies for the previous election ended at 9:15 pm). Multiple forms, a variety of envelopes, and all sorts of bureaucratic entanglements had us often working at cross purposes. (Even though a manual describes the process, this is where formal training - and having less paperwork - would be critical). Even combining the results from both the touchscreen machine and the paper ballot scanner took an extended length of time, due to the slow processing of the machine. Granted, there may not be funding for upgraded election technology, but in this case, it can mean more timely election results.

So am I glad I served as election judge? Yes: it may be a long day, and there's a rush of activity towards the end, but I'm also proud that I helped strengthen my community's voice. In fact, I'm eagerly anticipating serving again (which I'll need to double check - after all, I never determined whether I would be called back into service for each election, or if I would be asked to "sit one out". But for those who wish to strengthen our collective voice, and more importantly, create a truly democratic political spirit in Chicago....it's well worth it.

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