Why I Volunteered to be an Election Judge

In this decade, the integrity of elections has been severely challenged – some would say broken – especially in high visibility precincts and states. The ongoing controversy over the Bush administration’s attempts to control investigations of election irregularities by firing nine U.S. Attorneys is but one indication of the ways that our electoral process can be corrupted.

Recent doubts about the integrity of election returns have focused on voting machines, registration and investigation. But fair elections are accomplished through a myriad of details. What happens at each precinct in each township in each county and state is supposed to be overseen by volunteer election officials. We need very vigilant, knowledgable officials at each poll. This oversight is necessary not simply to prevent fraud, but to ensure as much as possible that the results can be trusted and that all qualified voters have access to the ballot.

Perfectly legal decisions can affect election integrity. I’ll use as an example the experience of my own precinct in University City.
In November 2000 the people in my historic neighborhood west of the U. City Loop could walk to the polling place, which was in one of the public buildings next to City Hall. This is a racially diverse neighborhood, with a relatively broad range of housing prices and rental rates. It is heavily Democratic.

By November 2004, our precinct’s polling place was moved across Delmar Boulevard to a place with little parking. It was still theoretically within walking distance, but the particular intersections are extremely hazardous for pedestrians. You took your life in your hands crossing the street, especially during rush hour in dim or fading light. Driving there was only slightly easier, despite the close proximity. It took us twice as long to get to the poll and vote.

That was bad enough. But in November 2006, with a hotly contested U.S. Senate campaign underway, our precinct was combined with two others and moved to a senior citizens’ residence on an obscure side street with little parking. The polling area was quite small and only one touchscreen voting machine and one optical scanning voting machine were provided. This was compared with the two to four machines that had been available at each of the three precincts in April of that year. In essence, the Board of Elections had cut the number of machines for these three precincts by as much as 80 percent. The line of voters threaded through the lobby and out the door. Average line time in the middle of the day, usually a slow time, was close to an hour. Some of the people who needed to vote quickly — Washington U. students, working people – had to leave the line to make it to work or class. The polling place was one of the last to close in St. Louis County, more than an hour after official closing time. Who knows how many people were kept from voting because of the long line.

The rationale given for moving our precinct’s polling place to much less convenient locations was that the Board of Elections didn’t have enough judges to staff all the polling places.

The Board of Election Commission in each Missouri county consists of Democrats and Republicans, but the person in charge is of the same party as the governor. Was it a coincidence that the polling place consolidation that my precinct expereinced happened after the Republicans took over? Did such consolidation and resulting limited access occur as well in heavily Republican precincts? These questions have not been addressed, to my knowledge. This is an example of one of the stresses on election integrity. People suspect partisan motives, even if the decisions (and mistakes) are merely human oversight or error.

We have a national crisis of trust in elections. Responsible and informed registered voters have an opportunity to make a difference by volunteering to keep the process accessible and fair.

Besides increasing the number of judges available for polling places, additional knowledgable volunteers would be more able to be vigilant about keeping voting machines secure, helping voters navigate the sometimes confusing machines and ballot layout, and making sure that troubleshooting and problem-solving occur in a non-partisan way.

We will desparately need computer literate, assertive folks on the ground on election days this year – from all parties. But particularly from the parties not in power – Democrats and Libertarians and Green Party – to help the Republicans run honest and unbiased elections that stand up to challenges. Our trust in elections is at stake.

Published in the St. Louis Labor Tribune, February 26-March 5, 2008

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