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Green Election Judge

By Patrick A. Barrett

Several years ago, my wife Trudy and I wanted to get more involved in that year’s election.  We are both blind.  We rode the bus to our local caucus meeting in February, and called a cab to go home afterward.  We voted for the candidate of our choice.  We asked the officials for help if we needed it for the small amount of print material.

Two years ago, I thought I would go further than just getting my feet wet, and jump into the political process pool.  Trudy was in Idaho for an undetermined amount of time helping her dad take care of her critically ill mom.  To those of you who have devoted a lot of care to be there for a relative suffering a long illness, there is no award in the world with enough value to recognize your selfless service!

At my caucus meeting, I showed up early and volunteered to check folks in for our ward.  I also was in charge of the list of those who wanted to serve as election judges.  I have a friend at my church, Pam Howell, who has served as an election judge for years.  She participated in the arduous but necessary recount process of the Al Franken and Norm Coleman U. S. Senate race of 2008.  I had always wanted to try it, so I signed up.  An election official would contact us if we were selected to help with the primary and general elections.

During the caucus meeting, several were elected as delegates and alternate delegates for the upcoming local convention.  I became an alternate delegate.  As the buses were running less frequently at that time of night, I started to call a cab.  One of the caucus officials overheard me, and offered me a ride home.

I started thinking later that night, though, if I could do all the duties of an election judge.  What alternative skills of blindness would I need?  Would my participation as an election judge be limited or even denied? 

I drew upon my well of self-esteem for assurance.  I’m not boasting I have a deep one, mind you.  I grew up “legally” blind, or not seeing very well, because my parents had not known about the National Federation of the Blind in Idaho.  Verbal and physical abuse from my dad also diminished any reservoir of self-respect.

When I was a student at Blindness:  Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc. in 1994, though, Dan Harmon taught me a valuable lesson about life.  He was my Careers instructor.  He was one of the few sighted teachers, yet he was a great blind guy in his Federation philosophy.  He said, “Pat, everyone needs to take risks in this life.  You need to have more faith in yourself.”

Sure, I will try it!  And through the effort, I might pave the way for other blind people who might want to be election judges.  My friend, Pam had seen me over the years be active in our church and carry out volunteer assignments successfully.  I quizzed her on what all an election judge did, and we picked some tasks that I could do.

Carol Strong, the election official, notified me via email that I had been selected to work as an election judge.  I was excited to get the word, and shortly after called Pam.  Pam shared with me that Carol had contacted her with some questions on how I would be able to serve.  Pam advocated for me, assuring her that there were tasks done by election judges that did not require sight, including instructing voters how to use the AutoMark® voting machine, handing out ballots, and overseeing voters inserting their ballots in the ballot counter.

Sheila Bruce, our hired and skilled reader for the past seven years, who has read mail, assisted with navigating more complex web sites, and sometimes has done shopping with us, filled out the paperwork for the election judge training.  On the form, you could choose whether to volunteer or receive $8.75 an hour.  Going to school and not working at the time, the choice was obvious.  I signed up to work both the primary and general elections.

In March, I attended my first local meeting as an alternate delegate.  I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota board of directors, and our quarterly board meeting was scheduled for the same day.  I apologized to our state president, Jennifer Dunnam, but thought it necessary to pick the alternate delegate duties.  It was tough choosing between the two, but I felt it would be good for folks to see a blind alternate delegate.

I checked in at the desk.  I entered the room, and asked one of the delegates where my ward was seated.  She showed me, and I was the only person on that row.  An hour later, I was still the lone representative.  I checked out at the desk again.  They told me that since none of the delegates had shown up, I was now the sole delegate.  Listening to the candidates and the issues was very involving!

On July 11, I rode the bus to the election-judge training site.  It was 85 degrees and probably that high of a dew point at 10:00 that morning.  Pam had told me that this building was difficult to find, tucked away in an industrial park.  So, I had given myself an extra half hour to find it.

The bus part was easy.  The four blocks getting to the address was a challenge.  There was no sidewalk on either side.  Street intersections and driveways seemed the same with the lack of traffic and curbs.  I must have asked six different people where this was.  One business I went into, I gave her the map I had printed out.  She gave me directions.  I was so nervous about being late that I promptly exited and ran with my cane loudly into the window adjacent to the front door.  Score one for bad impressions about blind folks!  No damage to the window; only to my pride.

Hot and sweaty, I finally got there ten minutes late.  Fortunately, they had just started.  The training was for two hours.  It was a PowerPoint presentation.  I listened to this.  When the trainer brought up specific forms with which we needed to be familiar, though, I used a hand-held computerized magnifier to view these.  When Sheila came the following week, we started reading over the thick handbook, and reviewed the forms, too.

Tuesday, August 14, I woke up at 5:00 AM to be at the polling place by 6:00.  I am the kind of person that does not like to be late, and gets impatient with others that are.  My wife has accepted this for 35 years:  that’s love.  Shaving in the shower, I cut myself in a small spot that insisted on bleeding for a long time.  It wasn’t profuse, just persistent.  I apologized to all the election judges there when I finally arrived at 8:15.

Luckily, this was the primary election, where voter turnout was usually lighter.  They had only had a few voters so far.  I checked in with Brian, the head election judge.  I went over with him the duties I thought I could perform.  He agreed with me, and started me out at the ballot box.  I was in charge of collecting the privacy shields that go over the ballots, advising voters how to insert the ballot, and listening for the “thunk” to announce it went in successfully or the “beep, beep, beep” that alerted us to a problem.  Oh, yes, and I got to hand out the “I Voted” stickers.

If you are going to be an election judge for the first time, I recommend working the primary election.  It is a good way to learn from the more experienced judges the ins and outs of the job in a slower-paced environment.  This is helpful training for the more harried general election.

I learned later that morning that the other election judges had brought snacks for the day.  The polling place was only six blocks walk from home.  When I went home for my hour lunch break, I made sure I had enough time to pick up some munchies at Cub Foods to bring back.

That afternoon, Brian switched up our roles for variety.  I was then handing out the ballots, and reminding every voter to only vote for one party.  Even with this caution given, we still ended up with 13 ballots at the end of the election that had to be thrown out because someone had voted across party lines.  Of course, when we determined this at the ballot box, we provided a fresh ballot to vote again.

Speaking about counts, Brian had asked each of us that morning to estimate how many voters would have voted by 5:30 PM.  Being green, my estimate was 2,200.  I also did that tongue-in-cheek, as that is the visual acuity measure for legal blindness.  Seemed appropriate with a blind judge, right?  He let me revise it, though, because he informed me there were only 2,400 registered voters in the precinct.  I took off the last zero to make 220.

One of the veteran judges won the contest.  No prize, just bragging rights.  He had estimated 100, and we had 96.  Later when the polls had closed, only 9% of registered voters in the precinct cast their ballots.  Wouldn’t it be super, if during the general election the percentage for those voting in every precinct in Minnesota were even 89%?  I have no patience for voter apathy either.

I should share with you an anecdote involving two experienced election judges that were working the registration table across from me at the ballot box most of the day.  They were dedicated volunteers, and probably in their mid-sixties.  I will call these women Lily and Millie.  They were like inseparable Siamese twins.  I’m not sure how they managed to go to the ladies’ room apart.

Lily and Millie were grousing (definitely not in a whisper) about how last year’s polling place was better;

Lily: “They gave us free coffee at the church last year.”

Millie: “They sure did.  And there was a lot more room there.”

Lily: “And they gave you free cookies, too!”

Millie: “You bet!  And the chairs were more comfortable.”

“Subtle” was not their middle name.  That evening, I became the unwitting target of their chatter.  I was not straining to listen to their remarks at my expense:

Lily: “I think he’s had two bottles of pop today.  One was a Coke and now this one’s an Orange Crush.”

Millie: “No, I think it’s his third bottle.”

And later;

Lily: “Has he had two pieces of pizza?”

Millie: “No, I think it is his third now.”

I looked straight at them, and said in a firm voice, “Two!”

Past six o’clock, I knew it would get busier.  I asked Brian if it would be OK if whenever there was an error message on the ballot box, then the voter could read me the text of the message.  I knew he would be busy with other duties checking on what judges needed with the increased amount of folks voting.  He said that would be fine, and so that was the alternative I used.  I had my white cane with me visible all the time.  The long, white cane told them I was blind, but also showed that a blind person could function as an election judge using alternative techniques of blindness.  Usually, the message was that the voter had voted two parties in the primary.  I directed them to the other judge to get a new ballot to revote.

At the end of the night, I stayed and helped pack up the equipment, check for signs posted in the halls and on the doors for collection, and stack chairs.  As I mentioned earlier, most of the judges had no problems putting me to work where needed.  Contributing to the election process, and being paid a fair wage for doing it, was rewarding!  Then it was on to the “controlled insanity” (as I had been forewarned by the vets) of the general election!

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