Local Election Officials in Dire Need of Volunteers for November Midterms

Ahead of the Nov. 8 midterms, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough warns there could be a crisis if more people don’t step up to help staff the elections.

“We have a serious shortage of judges and poll workers,” Yarbrough said Tuesday, which marked National Voter Registration Day. “The clerk’s office manages elections in suburban Cook County and we’ve seen our number of election judges shrink significantly in recent years. Over the last eight years, we’ve seen a reduction of about 40%.”

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Yarbrough said about 4,000 people have told the clerk’s office they’ll be available but 7,000 workers are needed.

Yarbrough said the pandemic has hindered her office’s ability to recruit election judges and poll watchers, and many previous judges may also be retiring given that the average age is between 65 and 70.

But she says the political climate isn’t helping.

A report from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice issued last summer found that increasingly election officials face violent threats and pressure to prioritize partisanship over a fair process, all made more difficult by an unsustainable workload and the spread of disinformation.

David Becker, founder and director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, co-authored with Major Garrett the book “The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of the Big Lie,” out Tuesday. It’s about how well the 2020 election was run, and the risks to democracy from lies by former President Donald Trump that it wasn’t.

“And if we get to the point where we cannot believe, or do not believe, that elections are valid – that they have integrity – despite the fact that we have more secure elections than ever right now, we’re in a very dangerous place for democracy,” Becker said. “We’re very clear about the damage that’s been done.”

Yarbrough says she is unaware of suburban Cook County judges facing harassment.

Becker says with paper ballots, audits and additional judicial scrutiny elections are more secure, but nationally lies about the election have led to harassment, abuse, and even death threats of election officials.

Given that, Becker said he doesn’t blame folks for not wanting to serve as election judges or poll watchers. But he says when there are big elections (and 2020 saw record high turnout of nearly 160 million voters) the system relies on volunteers.

“What I would suggest is, it’s not only worth it, but it’s more crucial than ever, this sort of active citizenship — to go in there, to see the process, to learn about the process, to facilitate your fellow Americans’ votes, even if you disagree with them,” Becker said. “And then, to be an evangelist for that process afterwards, so that we can have a peaceful transfer of power.”

Harriett Holmes has worked as an election judge for about 40 years, and said if enough people don’t show it makes the job difficult.

“It is a burden when you have a place where you should have five judges and you only have three, and we’re running around trying to get things done – we want things done in a proper manner, that’s why we signed up to be judges,” Holmes said. “So when we don’t have that, we do double work. And so we’re looking for people to come out, to stand up, to serve, to do what needs to be done in order for us to move democracy and move our world to the place where we need to go to.”

Chicago faced an election judge shortage for the June 28 primary, to the point that some precinct polling places had to delay opening.

Suburban Cook County is trying something new to attempt to attract recruits to the cause.

The clerk’s office says it will reach out to veterans’ organizations, to ask those who served in the military to perform another patriotic duty.

“These are tough times for democracy, and those in the veterans community took many years out of their lives to fight for this democracy, and we’re asking them to fight for this democracy again by serving on Election Day” said Brian Cross, who heads the clerk’s veterans services office.

Cook County officials want thousands more judges even though in accordance with a state law that allows precinct boundaries to expand there will be fewer precincts starting this midterm election.

“We did reduce the amount of precincts to kind of keep up with some of the shortages, but it’s still difficult,” said the clerk’s deputy of elections, Ed Michalowski.

Chicago Board of Election spokesman Max Bever said with precinct consolidation the city will need 6,450 judges rather than 10,345. Bever said that drop will allow polling places to be “overstaffed” with six to seven judges, versus the typical target of five.

Chicago is close to hitting its goal, and is having better luck recruiting bilingual judges including those who speak Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Polish, Korean and Tagalog.

Election judges pay up to $230 and coordinators make $450, and the board is still accepting applications .

Becker helped to create Election Official Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit legal defense network, to give pro-bono support to election officials and advice on combating misinformation. 

Additional funding is among the recommendations from the Brennan Center’s report. It also recommends states explore paying for personal and home security for election workers when warranted. And that states explore making changes to insulate election officials from political interference.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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