It Takes More Than Candidates And Voters To Hold An Election

Nov 3, 2017

A very important election issue isn’t on the ballot. It involves finding enough judges or inspectors to make sure election days run smoothly. In this week's Friday Forum, WNIJ's Katie Finlon looks at the efforts involved in filling those seats.

County and municipal officials already are starting to recruit election judges (the Illinois title) or inspectors  (the Wisconsin term) for next year’s election cycle. Some say it can be difficult to fill those necessary roles in all of their precincts.

City of Beloit Clerk and Treasurer Lori Stottler says her goal is to recruit 200 election inspectors by Nov. 17. She says that’s how many inspectors it takes to open polling places at 5 a.m. and close them at about 8 p.m., ensure voters are registered properly to cast ballots, tally votes and everything in between for the general election next year.

Stottler says that, if the city can find a total of 200 people to serve as election inspectors, they’ll be in good shape for other elections as well. She says the hardest part of inspector recruitment for her is just getting the ball rolling for every election cycle.

“It feels difficult at first, and making sure that every polling place is stocked with the right number of people and everybody is trained to the degree that I can feel confident in handing it off,” Stottler said. “It does feel challenging, one of the more challenging aspects of elections, but we also have wound up being okay with every election.”

Stottler says this cycle in particular might be interesting in Beloit, since a lot of her usual inspectors are, as she puts it, “aging out” – a larger group of election inspectors is retirees.

“I’m having kind of a changing demographic, and it is more difficult,” Stottler said. “It seems like the volunteering is less common in some of my younger people, so I am having to solicit more often, I guess you might say.”

Wisconsin state election officials say that clerks like Stottler aren’t required to have a certain number of Democratic versus Republican election judges per precinct. But they are required by state law to accept any appointment recommendations from each party.

Stottler says the lists she gets from either party usually aren’t that long, either. She says district boundaries have to be taken into account with those lists as well.

“Let’s say I have 10 Democrats and 20 Republicans,” Stottler said. “I kind of have to start with that appointment and then fill in from there.”

In Illinois, clerks must have a certain ratio of Democrats and Republicans per precinct, depending on the last few gubernatorial elections.

Beloit City Clerk Lori Stottler, left, and Winnebago County Clerk Margie Mullins

Margie Mullins is the Winnebago County Clerk. She says election judge recruitment alone is difficult enough in the county.

Mullins says she never has enough judges for all polling places on Election Day, despite using every avenue of public outreach she can think of – including asking sample distributors at a grocery store if they would like to be election judges, or even just attaching applications to voter registration cards sent in the mail.

“It asks you, ‘Would you like to be a judge?’” Mullins said. “And this last summer, we sent 94,000 cards out to all the voters in Winnebago County outside the city of Rockford, and we only got 119 of these back that said, ‘Yes, we’re interested in being a judge.’”

Mullins says she has heard people say that the monetary compensation isn’t enough to justify more than 12 hours of work in one day as an election judge, but she says that’s out of her control with the current state of Illinois financial affairs. Most election judges make around $100.

Sharon Holmes used to be the DeKalb County Clerk. Now she’s a frequent election judge for the county, and that’s because she knows how hard it can be to get election judges to serve for every election cycle.

Holmes says she recruited election judges 24/7 when she was county clerk – literally.

“I remember one in particular at 10 o’clock at night,” Holmes said. “I was sitting across a table at a wedding reception and was talking to a gentleman and he said, ‘What do you do?’ And I told him, and I said, ‘What do you do?’ And he said, ‘Well, I just retired,’ and I said, ‘Do you want to be an election judge?’ And there it was. So…constantly, I still am doing that, even though I’ve been retired [for] seven years.”

Former DeKalb County Clerk Sharon Holmes, left, and Rockford Board of Elections Executive Director Stacey Bixby

Stacey Bixby, executive director for the Rockford Board of Elections, says she faces a lot of the same problems as Mullins in recruiting election judges.

But, like a lot of counties, Bixby says reaching out to a younger crowd has only helped. She says the high school election judge program encourages students to be more engaged civically – and make a little money in the process.

Bixby says it also has been helpful in overall election judge recruitment.

“It’s a really long day, and they have to be there really, really early,” Bixby said. “But the rest of our election judges love them because they’re not intimidated by the computers and they don’t get frustrated if there are long lines, and they just have been great.”

Whiteside County Clerk Dana Nelson says she hasn’t had extreme difficulty in recruiting about 300 election judges per election cycle – and there is no high school election judge program for that area.

“We do lose a few here and there, but we have quite a few that stay year to year,” Nelson said. “In desperation, if we would need one, we would look to that area where we’re short judges and maybe reach out with letters to the households of voters in that area, asking if anyone would be interested.”

Even with a few call-offs or no-shows every election day, Nelson says getting people to serve as election judges hasn’t been a problem in Whiteside County. She says a lot of the judges just make it into a fun day – even if it is a long day.

“You know, they’ll all bring food to share, like a little potluck,” Nelson said.

Citizens who want to be an election judge in Illinois or inspector in Wisconsin must be registered to vote in the precinct they want to help. They must attend training sessions, be willing to work a long election day, be fluent in the English language, and be able to do basic math and operate computers.

If high school students want to participate but aren’t able to register to vote just yet, they usually need to have a B-average and come with faculty recommendations.

Stottler says you don’t even need to be a political junkie to feel fulfilled as an election judge in Illinois or inspector in Wisconsin.

“From beginning to end, it’s having that transparency and having that integrity that you were a part of electing leaders that make incredibly important decisions in your community,” Stottler said.

Bixby says voters can also get impatient on Election Day and may blame long wait times on the election judges. She says the judges are trained before they work the long day, but she also asks voters to remember that the judges are only trained a couple of times per year.

“And so they’re doing the best [that] they can, and I would just ask that everybody try to have a little bit of patience,” Bixby said.

Illinois and Wisconsin election officials say anyone who is interested in becoming an election judge for this upcoming cycle should reach out to their county or city clerk.