Sunday, August 14, 2022

Observations on Working as an Election Judge on the Aug. 2nd Primary

The people who serve as election judges work part time, only on election days. Most are retired; a few are elderly, some are stay-at-home moms. I worked with a woman, who I’ll call Pam, who has lived over 50 years in the neighborhood, and knew many of the people who came to vote. She herself was a Republican, but many who came to vote requested the Democratic ballto. They would say they wanted to go to Pam, so would wait until her position was open. Neighbors, fellow church members, and even her daughter came to vote at her station. Later, while fellow election judges were teasing her about knowing so many voters, she mentioned she also knew the man who had just come in. Pam said to him, “Your wife came earlier.” Him: “Yes, I heard.” I later figured out he was her son-in-law! My colleague was the nicest, kindest person, and wore a perpetual smile. I’m sure she made a good impression on most voters.

Earlier, while we waited for polls to open, I spoke with another judge I had met working the local election last April. He told me that he once worked in polling a place where everyone was very nasty. He said if the manager saw a voter lingering “too long” at a check-in station, he would yell, “What’s going on there!” That is ridiculous because it is not uncommon for there to be an issue with the voter’s ID or registration. He said another station was staffed by two older and very short ladies who were not visible to voters in line, because they were so short and hidden behind the poll-pad and printers. They would yell, “NEXT!” and get angry that voters did not step forward, but he said people could not even tell where the voice was coming from. He says he told the Election Board that he would not serve if he had to go back there. That is how he’s ended up at my location.

We ourselves had one new election judge who was described by a voter as “alarmingly perky.” She said “HELLO!” and “WELCOME!” to everyone who entered as if they were long-lost friends, and was always laughing and smiling. She was very pro-active and helpful, but sometimes intervened where she was not needed and thus complicated matters (like causing a queue for us to print out ballots, which can cause problems if we’re not careful to give the right ballot to the right voter, because every voter’s ballot can be different, since the county allows voters to vote at any polling place in the county.) But Miss Perky was very organized and pro-active, and got us packed and ready to go home just 30 minutes after polls closed, by starting the tear-down process early and assigning everyone tasks (though technically that was not really her job). It takes informal leaders to make individualistic Americans work as a team.

Early in the morning, while I was managing the scanner (standing aside so I could not see the ballot, but giving voters instructions on how to scan their ballot: “Insert it in any direction, except sideways!”), a woman stood in front of the scanner and called out, “How do I know that this machine is not going to change my vote? Is it connected to the Internet?” I explained that it was not connected, that we had to take a USB drive out and bring it to election headquarters at the end of voting, and that the original ballots would be available for checking. She continued on, saying that she knew that votes had been changed by machines in other states, though not in Missouri. The Republican judge working with me looked at me with her eyes open wide in shock, and also added a few reassuring words to the voter, but after the voter left, she commented, “Oh my goodness, some people….” She did not have to finish the sentence.

I was surprised by the number of people who complained that we did not offer computer voting (that is, voting on a touch screen). Sometimes, if I was not busy, I explained that this system was more secure, because each voter marked the paper ballot which remained as a record, and a machine scanned and counted the ballots, whereas the other system was viewed as less secure because you voted on a machine which created a paper record that you could not see. About five voters complained that we were going backwards, that this was not modern, and at least two of them were registering for Republican ballots, which surprised me since I would have thought Republicans would be in favor of more ballot security. The most vociferous complainer was a man with a police shield hanging on a chain around his neck, and a gun (looked like a Glock, but I don’t really know guns) in his holster on his right side. He was not in uniform; in fact, he was wearing an irreverent T-shirt that read “Breaking News: I Don’t Care” which I found a bit disconcerting on a police officer with a gun. Guns are not allowed in the polling area, but my Democratic manager claimed officers wearing a badge were allowed to carry a gun at all times and everywhere. He said that in any case, he does not argue with police. I told him I was not arguing with the police, but that was why I raised it with him.

Very few people tried to vote with anything but a driver’s license. I saw one woman vote with a Wisconsin driver’s license; I don’t really understand why that is legal, since to get a Wisconsin license, you need to be a Wisconsin resident, but to vote in Missouri you need to be a resident of Missouri. That issue is above my pay grade. Nobody tried to vote with a bank or utility statement, which is still allowed. I saw two people vote with a paper “Board of Elections ID” which did not have a photo on it; we had to tell them that in the November election, they would not be allowed to use that as a form of ID. Both of them knew that already, suggesting they were choosing not to use their driver’s licenses, for whatever reason. The state legislature has made voting “safer” according to Republicans, or “more difficult” according to Democrats, by requiring a photo ID.

One woman very apologetically said she was going to cause us trouble, and pulled out a “safe voter” ID. She said she did not know how it would work since this was the first time she tried to vote with it. This is for voters who need to hide their residence from stalkers or estranged partners. I had actually just learned how to handle this type of voter by reviewing the training video the day before, and it was no problem. The video said that there were less than 100 such IDs in St Louis County, but that it was good to know about it just in case. That turned out to be true. I was glad to be able to tell—and show—this voter that it was not a problem.

One of the more disappointing cases was of an elegant African-American woman, perhaps 25-30 years of age, first said she wanted a Democratic ballot, which we printed for her. Most minorities picked the Democratic ballot (except the Vietnamese, who all chose Republican), so thus far, she fit a stereotype. But then before she had even left our desk, said, “Wait, I want to vote for Vicky, because she is the only candidate I know, but I don’t know what party she is in.” She also did not know Vicky’s full name. We established that she meant a senate candidate, and so it must have been Vicky Hartzler. So we spoiled the Democratic ballot, and printed a Republican ballot for her. She brought to mind the criticisms of people like Walter Lippman that most people are not smart enough to know how to vote. I wonder what made her want to vote for “Vicky,” and how well informed she was of Vicky’s extremely conservative views, given that she did not even know what party she belonged to. Ignorant voters like this make decisions based on media images rather than policies, and can tip election results in our closely balanced and very polarized electorate.

Voters are also not allowed to wear clothes or hats that promote a candidate or party. At one point, while we were putting up a sign on our door and could see outside, we saw a man approaching with a t-shirt that said “Trump Lost” in large bold letters. We had a quick discussion and decided that since Trump was not on the ballot, that shirt was not a form of prohibited electioneering.

Voters have to sign on an electronic screen with a soft tip on a pen, and use the other end of the pen—a black ball-point—to mark the ballot. Nearly everyone finds this confusing. They use the wrong end to try to sign, and then they can’t figure out that you need to twist the pen to get the ball-point to come out. And nearly everyone feels foolish for being confused. It is a classic example of something that is easy once you know it, but can fluster you the first time. Fortunately, all of us judges were patient with the voters; I suppose we’ve also been there, done that. Nearly everyone leaves the process embarrassed.

The county results for both parties mirrored results across the state. No major surprises. The beer heiress Trudy Busch Valentine won the Democratic nomination for senator, despite not debating her main opponent or taking any press interviews. St Louis Public Radio made the Democratic primary look like a three-way race between Valentine, Kunce and Toder, but Spencer Toder did not raise much money and ended up getting less than 5% of the vote. It is clear that the Democratic Party establishment mostly was alarmed by Lucas Kunce’s populism and thus got behind Valentine, even though many commentators noted that only someone like Kunce has a chance in Missouri. Now, no one thinks the Missouri senate seat is in play.

In the Republican Senate primary, the establishment also worried that Eric Greitens (who is always described as “the disgraced governor”) would win the primary but be unable to win what should be a safe Republican seat. A PAC was formed to attack him, and polling showed that within one week of the PAC starting to show TV ads highlighting his ex-wife’s claims of physical and mental abuse, his numbers tanked. Eric Schmitt, who filed aquixotic suit against China for causing COVID (in case you were wondering, it did not work), and sued school districts who tried require students to wear masks, was able to get a plurality of votes in a crowded field. People who knew him 10 years ago say he is a good man, but to win the Republican nomination he has had to veer far to the right, as can be seen from his victory statement, where he still harps on fighting socialism and "Critical Race Theory." One of the more dispiriting criticisms against him is that he tried to create a logistics hub at the St Louis airport for trade with China--that is being portrayed as somehow being pro-China and disloyal. 

Screenshot from KMOV news broadcast
The only odd result on the Republican side was the loss by veteran politician Shamed Dogan in the race for the nomination for St Louis County Executive. He was defeated 44%-56% by a candidate who did not raise any money or campaign, and who even Republican officials say they don’t know and have never met. This news report expresses the surprise and mystery over her victory, and notes that her blog indicates she believes there are microchips in vaccines, and believes QAnon and global conspiracy theories. The obvious reason for the surprise result is race: Dogan is Black, and Pinner is White. Amazingly, KMOV and other news reports fail to note this—maybe they don’t have to; everyone already knows.

The best news from Missouri is that there are efforts to change the primary system from a party primary to non-partisan primary, as has been introduced in California and Washington state. That would make it less necessary for candidates in each party to appeal to their vocal and most committed fringe. In heavily Democratic areas like St Louis, the primary effectively decides the winner. A non-partisan primary would take the two most popular candidates of any party, and have them run against each other in the general election. It would make both the primaries and the general elections more interesting, more fair, and more representative of public opinion. In Election Judge training, they told us not to ask voters which ballot they want, but to turn the poll pad around so they can see the choice of parties, and they mark the poll pad with the stylus. They recommended doing this because many people don't like to have to announce what party they belong to. That suggests that a non-partisan primary would be popular with the public. 

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