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On the front line of democracy: electoral judges

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Editor’s note: Photographer Richard Cahan spent Election Day photographing and listening to some of the people who volunteered their time and talents to ensure the vote went smoothly, the count was accurate, and our democratic right fundamental to vote is guaranteed. The Round Table thanks not only those who are in this story, but all those who have worked as electoral judges. For full coverage of who won and lost, please read here. For an article on voter turnout, please read here.

At a time when election judges in parts of the country have been falsely accused of ballot tampering, citizens are still stepping in to ensure votes are cast and counted. We visited five polling stations on Election Day and spoke to five election judges. These are edited excerpts from our conversations.

Alexandra Ware-Reed
Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center

Alexandra Ware-Reed at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center. Credit: Richard Cahan

“I’m here to make sure my community is able to vote fairly. Typically, there are no blacks serving in the Fifth Ward on Election Day. I thought it was really important for representational purposes. Fifth Ward has always been black, and I think it’s really important for members of the community, older and younger, to see people who look like them working in elections, being interested in politics, either local or national.

“Elections like this are especially important because we vote for judges, people who have a direct impact on our lives. We can go to court for a myriad of reasons. And really knowing who we’re going to elect, who might stand up for us, who might have policies that work for or against our community is really important.

“I also speak Spanish. So if a voter feels more comfortable and empowered seeing a familiar face or a friendly face, having someone help them fill out the ballots and provide them with honest and genuine support Yes, I hope I am making a difference.

“The best part of the job is connecting with people in my community, connecting with people I’ve known all my life, connecting with their aunts and grandparents.”

Joy Joyce
Evanston Ecology Center

Joy Joyce at the Evanston Ecology Center. Credit: Richard Cahan

“I started doing this after I retired from teaching social studies for many years. At that time, I was living in a western suburb. And when I moved to Evanston about six years ago, I decided to continue.

“I want people to know it’s a good thing to do. We need more judges. I was able to basically learn to be part of a team, to follow instructions, to ask good questions, to interact with people. I feel like this role is part of the implementation of the democratic process as it is performed here in Illinois.

“The first few hours are the bad part. You can go wrong in two ways: sleeping too long or waking up too early. Unfortunately, I woke up too early. I’m embarrassed to say that I woke up at 2:47

“We are changing some equipment. I like the new electronic ballots [electronic poll book that helps confirm the authenticity of signatures] that we have today. One of the things I really like is that the screen rotates so you can face it towards the voter who can then confirm the information. And even in terms of signature registration, there seems to be a fair amount of transparency.

“Forgery? Please come and be an election judge here in this constituency and have a team of people to work with. Notice how often all of us or at least two people have to sign things. It sounds to me like there should be an intent to twist something by a group of people because you never act on your own.

Elizabeth Hubbard
Hillside Free Methodist Church

Elizabeth Hubbard at Hillside Free Methodist Church with fellow judges Ellen Van Bolhuis (center) and Amanda Bridges in the background. Credit: Richard Cahan

“I’ve always wanted to do it. My mother has been a judge all my life. And I’m finally an empty nest with kids in college. I had the opportunity to give my time. It’s my first time. I like it; Wish it was busier. But it’s a good way to learn. I’m sure there will be more people in November.

“We had to take an online training course, which was interesting and felt a bit overwhelming. And then you get into an in-person training course, which cleared up some of the things that were overwhelming online, but also gave us more questions. There is much more to learn. What if someone needs a provisional ballot. It is very different from the simple ordinary voter. There are all sorts of different ways to solve problems.

“I didn’t realize how much information we were going to be given. And the equipment is sensitive and expensive and important. We don’t just walk in and open the books.

“There’s definitely been no politics here, which is one of the things we learned in our training. You won’t even be allowed to wear a t-shirt that says anything. I would say it’s disturbing to think that people would try to influence anyone, regardless of your politics. I think electoral judges are really important. Personally, I think coming to your neighborhood and voting in person is patriotic in a good way. So being an electoral judge is part of it.

Shantia Aikens
School District 65 Offices

Shantia Aikens at the offices of School District 65. Credit: Richard Cahan

“I believe in democracy and I really participate in it. It’s my way of doing things in addition to voting. I enjoy watching people come to vote and do their part to ensure the sustainability of our democracy.

“We start very early. We stay late. We are here to make sure all eligible voters can vote. We are not here to prevent anyone from voting. We are not here to try to influence anyone in the vote. Our goal is to ensure that this process continues and that in the end, every vote we received is delivered and counted. That’s all.

“It’s sort of a way of giving back to our democracy. I am not a politician. I don’t want to be. But it’s my way of ensuring the sustainability of our democracy.

“I think the training should be more than just before the election. I think it should be every six months for all judges. It would keep us fresh and up to date with technologies. So on election day we are fresh and we know what we are doing. We are more confident in systems and in ourselves.

“I believe our democracy is under threat. We have individuals who look at the voters in this area and say that some of them should not vote, either because of their race, their religion or their gender. And it is wrong. All Americans should participate in our government. This is not the government of a rich man. It is not the government of the strong. It is the government of the American people as enshrined in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Andre Calloway
Washington School

André Calloway at the Washington School. Credit: Richard Cahan

“The political climate is very tense at the moment. I really believe that my generation needs to get involved a little more than we have been. I’m in my mid-thirties now, so I’ve been voting for almost 20 years. I think it’s time for us to step up and do our part.

“As an individual, I feel like I’ve done something important because it’s the first time I’ve done this. So I get out of my own comfort zone and try something new. I am surprised at the length of the day. I knew the day was going to be long. We’re in the final straight Getting here very early was the hardest part for me. I woke up at 4am and was here at 5am sharp.

“Voters come in all shapes and sizes, regardless of party. I really appreciate how everything is going. It’s really revealing. Just people who come to do their civic duty whatever their party. Everyone is courteous and respectful. No tension at all.

“I have learned how much easier they have made the voting process over the past 15 years since I started voting. The process is much simpler. It is easier for seniors to enter, vote, enter and exit. There is not much confusion for them. And they actually thanked us for making the process simple. We cannot take credit for it. I mean, technology is really what makes it easier for us. But we can walk people through the process, it’s rewarding.

“I don’t feel that democracy is under threat. I feel like it’s contested. And people just have to be up for the challenge.