Universal Suffrage

Meet the folks who tend to democracy's pesky details

Then it's on to the duties. There are five different jobs: polling-place roster judge, registration judge, demonstration judge, ballot judge, and ballot-counter judge. Each judge must rotate through all five positions during the course of the day. The first two are the most complicated, and our trainer spends most of the session on them. We must be sure to tell voters they are affirming the oath at the top of the page when they sign in. We must hand them a receipt, which they'll take to the ballot judge. ("One receipt equals one ballot," she enunciates.) We must check to make sure each person has not already voted by absentee ballot, and that the word challenge does not appear by their name. That means there is a question about the voter's address, the voter has lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction, or the voter may be legally incompetent. There are rules and questions for each of those scenarios, and our instructor buzzes through them at breakneck speed. A handful of trainees busily scratch notes on their handouts, while others stare off into space. Our teacher assures us first-timers that there will be more experienced people there to help us, especially the chief judge at each precinct.

 

4:00 p.m. Before we leave, we're told that we have to sing a song. Our instructor unfurls a poster with the lyrics on it and tells us to sing to the tune of "Take Me out to the Ballgame." The reluctant voices of this crew rise to a tinny mumble: "Take me out to go voting. Take me out to the polls..."

Stand up and be counted: Minneapolis voters exercise their constitutional right
Craig Lassig
Stand up and be counted: Minneapolis voters exercise their constitutional right

 

Voting is a right, not a privilege. That's the unofficial election-judge mantra. It's our job to do all we can to make sure that the people who by law are allowed to vote are not prevented from doing so. But mistakes can happen. Sometimes a judge may hit the wrong button on the ballot counter, and instead of returning a mistakenly filled-out ballot to a voter, accepts it and sends it through the machine. Once that happens, the voter cannot receive another ballot. Two ballots may accidentally be slipped into one of the secrecy folders; when this happened at the Office of Indian Ministries this Election Day, the scrupulous voter notified a judge and returned the extra empty ballot.

In the first early-morning rush, a woman came up to my table. Her name was in the roster, but challenge was written next to it. My co-roster judge and I were unsure what to do; we should have asked her questions--whether she was under guardianship or had been convicted of a felony. But, despite the claim that experienced judges would be there to smooth these glitches, everyone else was just as busy. I tried to explain to the woman that she could take her ID and re-register that day, but without a word she grabbed her driver's license and stormed out. We never found out what the challenge referred to, and we all felt awful that we couldn't sort it out.

 

12:45 p.m. Election Day I rotate over to the voter registration table. There's a new rush of people, and we try to move them through the process as quickly as possible. But it's complicated. Deciphering the rules is hard enough; committing them to memory seems like a task for Rain Man. One man has a photo ID with an old address, but no utility bill bearing his new one. The man he's with, however, has a current Minnesota ID card, so we register him first, and then he vouches for the other man. Another man gives me his address. He's in the wrong polling place, so I direct him to Hosmer Library. Another man's ID has his old address on it, and he doesn't have a bill with him, so we can't register him. We ask if he can come back later with a bill. "I came in to vote," he growls. "I'm on my way to work."

It's hard to turn people away, especially those who have bank statements or pay stubs with addresses on them, because those don't count as valid forms of ID. One of my co-judges says it best: "Who will you play God with today?"

 

2:00 p.m. I finish my shift at the ballot counter, watching people slide their ballots into the gray box, listening for the gentle whirring sound of the paper dropping inside, or the plaintive bleat of an error message. I hand them the coveted "I voted" stickers. When my eight-hour workday ends, 358 people have voted here. There are 1,176 registered voters in this precinct, and the turnout here so far is lower than in some of the other areas of town.

But there are still six hours before the polls close. A long line has once again formed in front of the voting booths and people are waiting eagerly. As I walk out into the snowy afternoon, I can almost hear the tune follow me: "Take me out to go voting. Take me out to the polls..."

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