In the past week, Minnesota has seen thousands of new COVID-19 cases every day, hundreds of hospitalizations, and deaths in the double digits. The state has reached numbers in a matter of a few days that previously took months to reach. The surging health crisis will come head to head with political tensions tomorrow during the election. But a group of people at the forefront of these tensions has been working hard to make sure voting goes smoothly.
Election judges are the frontline workers for the elections. They’re on the ground running each polling location on election day as well as early voting locations. It’s been a busy year so far with high early voter turnout. In a press conference this morning, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said that the state has accepted 1,716,575 absentee ballots and ballots from mail-only precincts so far, which is 58% of the voter turnout in 2016.
During the primary elections, jurisdictions outside of Minnesota faced shortages of election judges and last minute understaffing that contributed to long lines of voters. Counties, cities, and townships are responsible for hiring, training, and paying election judges, but Secretary Simon said that his office took notice of the shortages and held meetings with communities to figure out how to retain and recruit workers during the pandemic. “In the elections administration community, a call to action went out early this spring and summer,” he said. “Local jurisdictions went to extraordinary lengths to find people beyond their usual standbys this year. We heard a lot of creative and innovative tales from our partners how they hit the pavement and worked really hard to fill those spots this year.”
That call to action was answered. According to the Minneapolis Elections and Voter Services website, they received an unprecedented amount of application for election judges this year. “Hopefully, for the vast majority of people, they’re in and out and everything goes super smoothly and we know we’ve done our jobs,” said Lara Friedman-Shedlov, an archivist at the University of Minnesota Libraries who has been an election judge in Minneapolis for the past 20 years. States and cities differ in how they run their elections, and there have been changes over time. “Every year they have some little tweak that makes this piece run better or that piece run better,” she said. This year is especially different. NPR reported that Iowa has closed over 200 polling locations because of COVID-19. In Minnesota, there will be 3000 polling places, but some that used to be in vulnerable places like assisted living homes have moved.
“I wouldn’t say I’m 100% not worried,” said Friedman-Shedlov. “I’m in a better position to do it than other folks.” Election judges tend to be older people who are retired and have more time on their hands. “Because of COVID-19 this year, there are a lot of folks who have been election judges in the past who don’t feel safe,” she said. “They’re taking a lot of precautions, but still you’re going to be in a room with other people, and older folks may have more risk factors.”
Secretary Simon said the primary elections served as a sort of dress rehearsal for the general election. They’ve supplemented polling places with a sufficient amount of personal protective equipment with help from reviews by election workers and voters. Those who are voting in person will experience precautions which include limitations on the number of people inside at a time, markers spaced six feet apart, an abundance of hand sanitizer and disinfectants, high-grade masks for election workers, and disposable masks for voters. The CDC has provided guidance for polling locations that Minnesota’s Secretary of State Office has encouraged. “Everyone’s gotta wear masks and hopefully everyone will comply with that,” said Friedman-Shedlov. Voting in person has not shown to have worsened the pandemic, and it may be no more risky than going to the grocery store as long as you wear a mask and socially distance as much as possible.
Election judges rotate positions throughout their shifts, and there are head judges and assistant head judges assigned to every precinct. Friedman-Shedlov is a specialized type of election judge called a poll book and registration specialist. “In Minnesota, we’re fortunate that we have a pretty robust and inclusive registration system,” she said. “Usually, it’s straightforward, but sometimes you get a more challenging situation with a person where you have to problem solve. We have it better than most places…it’s really upsetting when someone gets frustrated and they leave the polling place. Maybe they’ve been given the wrong information.”
Friedman-Shedlov said being an archivist is similar to being an election judge. “People have to understand how the information is stored, how it’s structured, how to match up their information needs with what’s out there,” she said.
While some people volunteer to be an election judge, they can get paid. In Minneapolis, election judges are paid $17.15 an hour. While most election judges are older, there are programs for high school students to be election judges, and they’re always looking for younger people and people who speak more than one language.
“I don’t work in the same precinct where I’m registered to vote, many judges do,” said Friedman-Shedlov. “This year I did vote early. I just wanted to make sure I got that taken care of.”
Secretary Simon has urged voters to show their appreciation to election judges. “Thanks to the 30,000 people who stood up this year at some risk to themselves,” he said. “They’re really doing an extraordinary thing. It’s a tremendous service and very important to our democracy.”