By Mary Jane Smetanka
For election officials in Minnesota cities, 2020 is expected to be extremely busy, with a presidential nomination primary in March, a statewide primary in August, and a general election in November. That means cities need to hire a lot of election judges. But that job is harder than it’s ever been.
Traditionally, retirees have been dependable recruits, but they could be at vacation homes in March and August.
The challenge in hiring judges comes as Minnesota faces what could be its busiest election year ever. The state is a perennial leader in voter turnout.
Cities get creative
These and other challenges have some cities finding creative ways to recruit election judges. For example, with the popularity of early voting — in 2018, 24 percent of Minnesota voters cast a ballot before election day — some cities are cutting the number of voting locations, allowing them to hire fewer judges.
Technology is another creative solution that some cities are using to streamline the recruitment and management of election volunteers. And many cities are boosting their judge numbers by hiring high school and college students.
An additional bump in the road
Another challenge is the growing political polarization, which makes it harder for cities to meet state requirements for party balance among election judges. David Maeda, director of elections with the Minnesota Office of the Secretary of State, was city clerk in Minnetonka for 11 years until he moved to his state job last year.
“The requirement for party balance was one of our biggest challenges,” Maeda says. “In Minnetonka, we were actually turning [potential judges] away because we couldn’t meet the political party balance requirements.”
The League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) is working to convince the Legislature to modify the party balance rule.
In recent years, many rural parts of the state have swung Republican, while the majority of people in the Twin Cities area has voted Democratic. State law requires that no more than half of the judges in a precinct be of the same major political party. The League supports changing the rule to require each precinct to have at least one judge from each party.
Election judges can identify with a party or be unaffiliated. A judge of each major party must be present when ballot boxes are opened, when someone needs to correct a ballot, when someone uses curbside voting, and when there is voting at a health care facility.
“Based on feedback from our members, making sure we have enough judges is a recurring concern. This requirement makes it harder to recruit,” says Ann Lindstrom, LMC intergovernmental relations representative.
Amber Eisenschenk, LMC attorney and research manager, agrees. “Finding judges is a challenge to begin with, but the party balance is a real struggle,” she says.
Consolidating polling places
With early voting, reducing the number of polling places is an option for cities, Eisenschenk says. Morris, located in Stevens County with a population of 5,500, is one of the cities that has chosen to do this.
In 2018, the number of polling places in Morris dropped from six to three. They still had the same number of precincts, but simply put more than one precinct in each polling place. Deputy City Clerk Sandy Anderson says there were a few complaints about longer lines but, with the city’s transit system, access to polls is easy.
She agrees that finding judges is harder than it once was. “Everyone’s working outside the home,” Anderson says. “I’m constantly trying to find out who’s retiring.”
Like many cities, Morris recruits judges from lists of names that come from the political parties, and advertises for judges on the city’s public access TV channel. It also raised the pay of election judges to $12 an hour.
Technology can help
In Burnsville, a Twin Cities suburb with more than 62,000 residents, 150 to 300 judges are needed to staff 17 polling places. The city recently started using technology to ease the job of finding and hiring judges.
Deputy City Clerk Megan Hamilton says that with its deadlines and state requirements, election season can be crazy, and the accompanying mounds of paperwork make it even more frantic.
In 2016, Burnsville and four nearby cities worked to move most of the judge recruiting and management process online. Burnsville began using that computer program in 2018.
Potential judges apply online. People who don’t have access to computers at home can use a machine in the City Hall lobby. Applicants get an immediate response telling them their form was received and what happens next.
The computer program helps manage correspondence, schedules training, and helps assign judges to precincts. Hamilton says it cut the estimated 240 hours she spends on hiring and managing election judges in half.
Burnsville advertises for election judges in its quarterly newsletter and on the city website, and uses Twitter, Facebook, and information tables at city events to recruit judges. Emails are sent to people who have worked as judges before, inviting them to sign up again.
Though retirees still make up the bulk of the city’s election judges, Hamilton thinks the ease of the online process has attracted some younger people.
Hiring young people
Burnsville and Morris are among the roughly 80 Minnesota cities that have hired high school or college students as election judges. Both describe the experience as positive.
Hiring teenagers can present some challenges — they don’t always check email, some don’t drive, and it can be difficult to figure out how to pay people who don’t have a bank account. Also, under state law, teens under 18 are restricted to working between the hours of 5 a.m. and 11 p.m., unless they get a note from their parents to work outside those hours. Still, it is worth the trouble, Hamilton says.
“Other judges praise them,” she says. “If they speak a language other than English, we try to place them in a diverse precinct, and they can help with translating.”
Amy Anderson, a senior program director at the YMCA Center for Youth Voice, created the Student Election Judge Network, which promotes youth activity in elections. While student judges are unaffiliated and can’t help with party balance, she says they expand the judge pool, add technology expertise and enthusiasm, and often increase diversity.
For cities, the key to successful student recruitment is to find a committed teacher and to seek out more than the high achieving kids, who often are already very busy.
Going to a civics teacher or a career counseling center may turn up teens who are interested in government or simply want to make some money. Giving a teacher a small payment to recruit and organize student judges can make the process much easier, Anderson says.
“The kids feel so important and so proud to be involved in something like this, and they’re all fired up and raring to go,” she adds. (For more ideas and resources to help with recruiting youth to be election judges, visit the YMCA Center for Youth Voice’s Student Election Judge Toolkit at http://bit.ly/StudentElectionJudgeToolkit.)
Hibbing, located in St. Louis County with over 16,000 residents, began using college and high school students as judges in 2012. A student must be 18 to be a regular election judge. Younger students are put to work on other tasks such as providing computer expertise. They get paid the same as regular judges.
Candie Seppala, Hibbing council executive assistant, says that in 2018 seven of the city’s 70 judges were in high school or college. They pulled the median age of judges from 72 down to 54.
The computer expertise of young people comes in handy, she says. When Hibbing cut four of its 11 precincts, it was students who could speedily use a phone to tell confused voters where their new polling place was. The city used computer-savvy students to enter voting results (senior staff later checked those results for accuracy), freeing experienced judges for other duties.
“It looks great on a resume or on an application for scholarships, and they’re doing something for their city, their state, and their country,” Seppala says. “They’re getting the feeling for what elections are all about, and that can lead them to being a lifetime judge.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.
Sidebar: State Funds Available for Election Costs
Cities may get some help with this year’s election costs through the Minnesota Office of the Secretary of State.
Last year, the state Legislature accepted $6.6 million in federal money to address election security concerns. About $3.2 million is going to upgrade the Statewide Voter Registration System. The rest will go to local governments to develop and analyze their own IT systems to make sure they are secure when they link with the state’s computers.
State Elections Director David Maeda says a newly hired technology expert will study county systems first and identify which cities need help. That help likely will not be available until the general election.
State legislation authorizing the March presidential nomination primary includes a provision to reimburse cities for some costs such as preparation and printing of ballots and election judge salaries. City estimates of those costs were above expectations, and the secretary of state is still working on developing reimbursement standards, Maeda says.
The League of Minnesota Cities will provide updates in the Cities Bulletin e-newsletter as more details for these funding opportunities become available.