Serving as an Election Judge

Wondering how to get involved with local elections? This is a good place to start!
Chicago blogger shares her experience serving as an election judge in Cook County.

I was an election judge for the first time on Tuesday for Illinois’ 2024 primary election. It was surprisingly fun, albeit one of the longest days I’ve had in a while. I was at the polling place for almost sixteen hours — 5am to 8:45pm. It surprisingly went by pretty fast, though!

While this post isn’t like my usual blog content, I found the entire experience to be SO interesting! SO many thoughts and SO MANY notes. I figured you might find it interesting, too?!

I planned to get more behind-the-scenes content of the experience, but it was hard to capture content while maintaining privacy. Plus, I’m more of a words gal and tend to get longwinded. A blog post is much more my speed than a TikTok!

Applying to Be an Election Judge

First and foremost, I’m definitely going to apply to serve as an election judge for the general election in November! I really enjoyed my experience and would love to do it again.

I received an email in early February saying my area was in need of more election judges and applied right away. There are close to 1,300 precincts in Chicago, and each one of those needs FIVE election judges to run optimally. (We were understaffed and only had four.) I’ll do the math for you — 6,500 poll workers are needed for an election! From watching the news, I know Chicago (specifically on the North side!) is desperate for more poll workers, which actually really surprises me.

I’ll be honest… I was a little nervous when I applied. When you apply to be an election judge, you’re able to specify what areas you’re able to serve in. I figured the North side would be fully-staffed, so I actually marked that I would be comfortable serving anywhere. (Even though I was kind of worried I’d get placed in a less safe part of town.) I was very relieved that I got assigned to a precinct close to my house that I’m familiar with! But, like I mentioned above, there’s actually a shortage of poll-workers, specifically on the North side. So in hindsight, I didn’t have much to worry about.

Working as an Election Judge

After a few hours, I felt like I mostly got the hang of it. Of course, there were new situations to figure out all day long… New voter registration, name changes, address changes, handling mail-in ballots, etc.

If you’re one of those people that likes to see how the sausage is made and find learning about new things fun, you should think about applying to be an election judge! I’m definitely a “fix it” kind of person and enjoying solving problems, so most of the day was pretty fun to me.

There’s very much a learning curve that any handbook or training can’t really prepare you for. I understand why people become repeat ‘poll workers’ and end up volunteering for every election! Now having 16 hours of on-the-job experience, I have to assume being an election judge would feel so much familiar next time.

I felt pretty lucky with the other election judges I got paired with at my assigned polling place! All women, aged 17 to mid 50s, with strong work ethics that all meshed well together. The shocking part, though, was that it was all of our first times!! All of us were total newbs and only two of the four had been able to complete the training.

Setting up the polls was an absolut sink or swim situation, haha. You’re required to get there at 5am, have certain computers up and running by 5:15am, and have the polls open to voters at 6am. None of us had prior experience so it was just us and our handbooks… Reading every word of every instruction step, trying not to fuck it up! It felt like some type of cooking competition show… TEN MORE MINUTES!! 😅

Later in the day, I was laughing thinking that a great SNL spoof skit around election season could be a cross between setting up a polling place on time and The Great American Baking Show. 😂

Apparently, at some polling places, you’re able to arrive the night before to get some of the heavy lifting out of the way… Setting up tables, assembling booths, etc. That way, on the morning of the election, you’re able to focus on setting up the technology and getting all of your forms in order.

Next time, I’ll definitely be getting there even earlier than 5am on the day of, as well as trying to set up the night before. I was assigned to a polling place in a gymnasium, which hosted a game the night before, so unfortunately, setting up early wasn’t an option.

Dave was so funny about the process… When I was stressing the night before about feeling unprepared (more on that below), he was like, “I’m sure you can learn on the job, you’re just there to help.” LOL — It’s even funnier thinking about that statement now, as each election judge is so-very-integral to the process. He texted me during Election Day saying, “Do you think you’ll have to stay the whole time?” Not at all trying to be self-righteous, but like, I had to take an oath!  It’s not like I can just close up shop and skip on out of there?! Needless to say, it was much more official than he realized! I think he thought I was more of a helping hand versus running the show.

On feeling unprepared…

I didn’t find out I was confirmed to be an election judge until Monday morning. 🤯 (For the election the following day.) Thankfully, I have a flexible work situation and was able to still make it happen.

I applied on February 3rd and then got an automated email to sign up for training on February 8th. When I logged into my account, it showed my status as ‘pending’ instead of assigned, so it wouldn’t allow me to sign up for the training. I emailed for help and got a bounce-back from the no-reply email address. I figured I’d hear more closer to the election, but actually kind of forgot about it since February was pretty crazy for us!

The week before the election, I kept checking my status online and it still said ‘pending.’ I knew I had received multiple emails saying my area was in need of poll workers, so I was confused why I hadn’t gotten picked. In hindsight, I should have just called the Chicago Board of Elections, but none of the emails had a phone number listed so I wasn’t sure where to call.

On Monday morning, I was casually thumbing through the mail while I was making my coffee. I sort of panicked when I saw a letter from the CBOE and tore it open. The letter stated I was assigned to a polling place and it listed the names and phone numbers of the other election judges I would be serving with. Wait, what?? I haven’t done the training?? I have no idea what I’m doing?!

There was finally a phone number listed so I called down and actually got someone on the phone right away. She told me I was able to be an Election Judge without completing the training, which I found kind of insane. “You have the handbook, right?” Ummm NO. What handbook?!? Apparently, I should have received that in the mail, but instead, I had to drive into the Loop on Monday morning to go pick it up from 69 W Washington. (Said handbook ended up getting delivered to my house on Thursday after the election, so there must just be few days delay with our mail.)

On things running smoothly…

As much as it felt haphazard with the blind leading the blind at times, it was also such a well-oiled machine in other ways. At any point during the day, you’re able to call Election Central for help. Every person we talked to was very calm, helpful, and friendly and was able to troubleshoot with us or give us the information we needed.

There were also SO MANY checks and balances and pretty much every single thing had to be recorded. When it came to ‘seals’ that would keep certain cases locked, each and every seal had a number that had to match up. When a seal had to be broken, you had to document it and save the broken seals. 

The Attorney General’s office came by at one point to check on things, as did Chicago Board of Elections investigators, and a CBOE tech check-in, too.

Each precinct also has to have poll workers who represent each party. When I applied to be an election judge, I marked that I could serve for either party, Democrat or Republican. Not to get into politics, but I don’t really find myself fully identifying with either party these days, so I found it to be easy to put aside any biases throughout the day.

Closing the Polls

The polls close at 7pm, but anyone who is in line by 7pm is guaranteed the right to vote. We had people voting in their booths at 7pm, but didn’t have anyone waiting in line at that time, and we were there closing the polls until almost 9pm. And that was just the primaries! In my assigned precinct, we only had 279 ballots casted day-of. Can you imagine what it will be like for the general election in November??

Once you close the polls, it’s the job of the election judges to send in your precinct’s election results. Majority of this is done electronically, but election judges have to manually count all of the write-ins and follow a separate protocol for those ballots. In addition, there’s SO MUCH PAPERWORK to fill out once the polls close. There are countless things to document and sign off on, as well as physically breaking down the booths and putting everything back into the boxes. During a general election, I can’t see a world where you’re getting out of there before 10 or 11pm.

Once you’re fully finished with your poll closing duties, two of the election judges (one Democrat and one Republican) have to take all of the important things to the receiving center. Two women on my team volunteered to do this, so I don’t have firsthand experience. From my understanding, there will likely be line once you get there, as someone has to audit everything you’re turning in.

Obviously this is just my experience within Chicago and volunteering with the Cook County election. I’m not sure how things operate in other states or counties. It could be similar, or it could be very different. I truly have no idea!

I’ve actually never even voted in another state… Having only lived in New York for three years, I’ve only ever been registered to vote in Illinois. When I lived in NYC during the 2012 presidential election, I voted early when I was home visiting my parents. In 2008, I voted for the first time at college (in Illinois) and by 2016, I was living in Chicago.

More Thoughts on Being an Election Judge

I personally feel like I teeter on the line between introvert and extrovert. Any personality test has always marked me as extroverted (ENTP), but for as much as I get energy from being around others, I very much need to recharge my batteries alone. In new social settings, I find small talk to be absolutely draining, so I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed my time working as an election judge.

As I mentioned above, we had close to 300 ballots casted in our precinct. However, we were sharing our polling location (in a gymnasium) with another smaller precict in the area. You also get people showing up to the wrong polling location, people trying to turn-in their mail-in ballots (which you can only do at early-voting super centers), poll watchers from different campaigns (that have to give you their credentials), etc. I have to assume I probably talked to at least 500 people that day!

Since the election, Dave and I have talked a lot about this because I surprised myself (or both of us) with how I felt so outgoing with strangers. He said something along the lines of “you love to help people” and you “didn’t need to make small talk,” which all kind of clicked.

Needless to say, I was constantly re-applying hand sanitizer throughout the day. Since then, I’ve been taking my immune-boosting wellness vitamins and making my wellness teas (recipe to come) all week! So far, so good, so I hope we’re in the clear.

As someone who primarily works from home, it was good for me to flex the muscle of being outgoing with strangers! It was also good practice for staying calm amidst chaos and being friendly even when you’re faced with rudeness or an annoying request.

As an election judge, it’s your responsibility to make sure everyone voting has a pleasant experience. From helping the elderly or phsyically impared, to smiling and keeping the positive energy, it all matters.

I shared a bit more about my past philanthropic efforts in this post, but I was very involved in college. Outside of my sorority, I was in a business fraternity that had three pillars: professional, social, and philanthropic. This is a whole different conversation for another day, but it was easy to feel like an outcast being a pre-law-dropout in a business fraternity full of accounting and finance majors when you had zero intentions of working in that sector after college. In hindsight, I feel like that’s partially why I gravitated towards the philanthropic pillar… From organizing fundraisers to coordinating our volunteer efforts, it always felt like philanthropy was where I shined. Just like the Positive Impact committee on Remote Year, serving as an election judge took me back to those old volunteering days. It feels good to feel like you’re helping out and giving back!

A Cringe-Worthy Moment

I did want to share the main fumble I made while serving as an election judge… If you plan to serve someday, hopefully it’s helpful so you don’t put your foot in your mouth like I did!

For my friends in Chicago, you probably know about the big-ticket referendum question that was on the ballot. The proposed real estate transfer tax changes have been a popular topic, and it seemed like the referendum question was a big driving force for those who came out to vote on Tuesday.

We had lots of people ask us where to find the referendum question on the ballot, as it was on the back of both the Democratic and Republican ballots. Outside of choosing candidates, the real estate transfer was the only referendum question on the ballots this election. After many questions from voters, our team started preemptively telling everyone the question was on the back when we were handing out ballots. Unfortunately, this was not before I made a hasty mistake that was in my head the rest of the day.

One guy had come back up and asked where to find “the mansion tax question.” The real estate transfer tax referendum was called “Bring Chicago Home,” but many of those in favor of the real estate transfer tax changes had nicknamed the referendum the “mansion tax,” because it would increase the transfer tax for homes over one million dollars. We told him it was on the back.

A few minutes later another guy came back up to us and said, “Hey, uhh, where’s the question about the…?” Without even thinking as I was multi-tasking, I said, “Oh, the mansion tax question? It’s on the back of the ballot.” He looked at me with absolute disgust and said, “You know it’s not called that, right?!”

I felt like such an idiot! He obviously thought I was trying to push my personal views onto voters, so I can definitely understand his frustration. As an election judge, you have to take an oath that you’ll uphold an unbiased voting experience. I was so embarrassed and it served as a very good lesson in choosing my words carefully! Truth be told, I have to assume I actually voted the same way he did on the question, but obviously my words insenuated otherwise.

Anyway, I thought it would be helpful to put together some tips for election day given my experience on Tuesday.

Tips for Voters on Election Day

1. ACTUALLY VOTE!

It was reported that only 20% of registered voters turned out to cast ballots this past Tuesday. The Chicago Sun-Times reported it was “one of the worst voter turnouts for a Chicago presidential primary since at least World War II.” Our computers said our precinct had roughly ~2,000 registered voters and we only had 279 cast ballots.

2. Be nice to your poll workers!

By and large, people were very friendly. But there were definitely a handful of frustrated people throughout the day… People frustrated by where a referendum question was physically located on the ballet. People frustrated we couldn’t let them vote at the wrong location. Voters frustrated by how the Illinois Primary election works with having to choose a Republican, Democratic, or Non-Partisan ballot.

Maybe some people assume that anyone working the polls is somehow involved with the local government, but that is not the case. Far from it, as poll workers are all volunteers!! Well, that’s technically a lie, I guess.

I had to fill out a W4 and will apparently receive $170 for my 16 hours of work + the handful of hours spent studying my handbook to try to prepare. After taxes, maybe I’ll get $90? 😂 Better than a sharp stick in the eye (as Dave’s dad would say), but not exactly a meaningful amount of money. It’s basically volunteering, especially as someone without PTO volunteering my time away from more profitable money-making activities.

3. Vote early!!

At least at our polling place, the busiest time was between 4:30-7pm. If you can vote before work or during lunch, you’ll spend much less time doing it than going after work. Lots of people in the off-times had the entire polling place to themselves!

Also, if you’re able to go to an early voting site and get it out of the way ahead of time, why not?! All Early Voting sites have *electronic* ballot-casting machines, which makes your job a lot easier. Plus, I’m sure they’ll still be able to give you a sticker to wear on Election Day. 😉

Tips for Election Judges on Election Day

If you’re an Election Judge or a Poll Worker, where are some of my tips for working on Election Day!

1. Bring all of your food and drink!

If crowds allow, you’re able to take a little break here and there. I suppose you could order food, but you won’t have time to go out and get lunch. I brought a bunch of snacks and drinks with me, but Dave brought me another bag of things late in the afternoon. Next time, I’ll be packing Dave’s Yeti cooler backpack and bringing extra sparkling waters for the group!

2. Wear comfortable clothing and shoes.

Sneakers are a must with how much you’re on your feet! I wore my New Balance 327s and it was definitely the right call.

Stretchy jeans were also the right move! I wore this pair from Mango.

I’d also recommend layers! I wore a tee with a cardigan over it. I was running hot, but I could see myself getting cold in November.

3. Pack your necessities!

I normally don’t need to reapply this lip balm, but I was applying all day long. The air in our gym was SO DRY! Chapstick is a must. (I also swear by this Aquaphor for the lips!)

The CBOE provides you with hand sanitizer for your table, but I’ll definitely be bringing my own next time with how much I was reapplying. Personally, I love this one and this one.

In the bag Dave brought me in the afternoon, I also had him pack my deodorant and eye drops. Next time, I’ll be packing those in my purse! It definitely couldn’t hurt to pack Advil, tissues, etc.

PS: If you want to give back on Election Day, but aren’t able to commit to ~20 hours, go surprise your precinct with coffee or snacks! There were a handful of people who dropped off muffins or bagels and it was SO kind and generous.

FAQs

What does an Election Judge do?

Election Judges work together to ensure their polling place is running smoothly and voters are properly served.

Do Election Judges get paid?

I’m only familiar with serving as an Election Judge in Cook County, but here in Illinois election judges do get paid. You’ll receive $170 for serving on Election Day, as well as $60 for completing the training course beforehand. There’s extra pay for taking on additional duties like cell-phone user and key holder, as well.

I believe election judges in suburban Cook County get paid more. Check this page for more information!

When do Election Judges get paid?

My handbook said a check would be mailed within 4-6 weeks after Election Day.

Is Election Judge pay taxable?

I had to fill out a W4, so I’m assuming that yes, the pay is taxable.

What is a student Election Judge?

You can find more information here, but high school and college students can apply to be election judges! A really sweet local high school student was on my team of election judges and was fulfilling some type of volunteer hour requirement from her school.

How do I apply to become an Election Judge?

Visit this page to find the application and learn more about becoming an election judge!

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