Election integrity up close

How democracy works at the ballot box

click to enlarge Election integrity up close
Dusty Rhodes, right, with fellow election judge, Judy Large. One benefit of being an election judge is making friends with someone from the other party.

I've always considered voting to be a process somewhat like an oil change – an occasional and mildly inconvenient task necessary to keep the engine of democracy humming. I'd never thought twice about the mechanics involved until a couple of years ago, when people stormed our nation's Capitol screaming bloody murder about it. That horrific scene triggered my old reporter instincts. It made me want to go into the voting garage and see for myself how the government gets its fluids changed. And so in April of this year, I became an election judge.

Step one was in-person training. Election judges are required to attend a two-hour session that culminates in a three-page multiple choice test. The first time I went, I felt like the mom who couldn't help her kid with algebra homework now being dropped into a college calculus class. The instruction ranged from technical (which key was in which pouch) to the conceptual, like who could challenge a voter (virtually anyone), what poll watchers can do (look but not touch), and whether a baby in a stroller could wear a campaign-branded onesie into the polling place (no) or an adult could wear a red MAGA hat (depends). 

For every conceivable scenario, there was a belt plus suspenders. There's a special process for dealing with voters who got a ballot by mail but didn't send it in (provisional ballot), every voter who voted early, even up to the night before (a fluorescent sticker gets put on their application), and a cool machine for voters who are visually impaired. If the power goes out, the tabulator machine has a backup generator. If the generator runs dry, there's an emergency bin to hold the ballots. Every significant action requires at least two judges (one from each political party).

Another thing I learned is that democracy runs on coffee. Election judges have to be at their assigned polling places by 5 a.m. and stay until polls close and all paperwork is completed, sometime around 8 p.m. A polling place may host multiple precincts (the one I worked at has three), and each precinct has five judges – three from the party that got the highest number of votes in that precinct in the three most recent gubernatorial elections, and two from the losing party. That gives you a solid 15 hours to make friends with someone from the other party.

For me, it was Judy Large. She has been an election judge off and on (mostly on) since the early 1980s, back in the days of punch card ballots with "hanging chads." She has judged at polls in Williamsville, Sherman and several spots in Springfield. Recently retired, she had long careers in education and as the biomedical research administrator for SIU. During slow times (the primary didn't attract a lot of voters), we shared pictures of our pets and our gardens and traded tales of our various injuries. When I saw that she liked word games, I taught her how to play Wordle; when I discovered that she knew American Sign Language, I persuaded her to teach me a few choice insults. 

Unlike the April primary, there was no slow time on Nov. 8. A voter was waiting at 5:45 a.m., while we were still setting up, and we had a steady stream of voters throughout the day. This robust turnout made all the judges giddy. Among the three precincts, a small rivalry ensued as we kept a running calculation on our respective percentages (our precinct always won).

You might wonder: What do election judges actually judge? All kinds of things. If campaign signs are too close to the poll, we can remove them or have them removed. If a voter shows up wearing a Let's Go Brandon hat, we could vote amongst ourselves on whether that constituted electioneering. If a voter's signature doesn't match their application signature, we can decide whether to allow that person to vote (I know of only one challenge, and the voter produced his state ID). Judy and another veteran judge told me they wish we required state IDs from every voter. But when pressed to estimate numbers of questionable signatures, Judy agreed signatures evolve over time, and "usually, there's enough (similarities) there that I can tell it's OK." 

The real work begins at 7 p.m. on the dot – the very moment the polls close. "We're all on a high," Judy says. "Adrenaline pops in and we're going 90-to-nothing to get results and show that we did our job."

We open the bin beneath the tabulator and dump all the paper ballots into piles on the table top. Judges gather around and start sorting out ballots by precinct. Here's the quaint part: This process is done by looking at the initials the judge has scribbled on the top of each paper ballot. Each precinct has its own colored pens, so we sort the paper into three piles – black, red, green – and start counting. 

To be perfectly clear: We count ballots (sheets of paper); we do not count votes. Votes are counted by the tabulator machine. At the time we open the bin, it spits out a tape that shows how many ballots were cast in each precinct, and our sole goal is to make sure our physical count matches the tape. We break the seal on the memory card compartment, pop it out, and put it into a special envelope.

After that, there's a lot of packing and signing. There's an extremely complicated system of pouches and envelopes, with ballots going straight into big gray suitcases (yes, those exist!) and sealed, never to be opened without a court order. Everything gets signed by all the judges, then transported downtown by two judges (one from each party) riding together in the front seat of the same vehicle. 

Judy and I weren't on the transport team, so we dragged ourselves to our respective cars, weighed down by uneaten snacks and a sudden dearth of adrenaline. Only then did Judy ask, "Hey, did you see the results?" I had glanced one time at the top line tally on our tape, and noticed that Darren Bailey had 20ish more votes than JB Pritzker. "Well, Chicago will overwhelm that," Judy sighed.

And that's the thing: Until that moment – after the results had been finalized and driven away in sealed security containers – no one in the room had discussed the outcome of any race on the ballot. Instead, we had spent considerable time and energy making sure every qualified voter could vote, everyone who had already voted could not, and that the machine count and the paper ballot count matched up. 

I realize the system isn't perfect. But when I voted (early), I noticed the ballot included the name Don Gray, running for another term as county clerk, in charge of our elections. He is a Republican, and he was running unopposed. I had no problem coloring in the little oval next to his name.

Dusty Rhodes is a former staff writer at Illinois Times and a former reporter for NPR Illinois.

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