In an era of electronic voting machines, computerized registration books and ever more sophisticated election technology, who better than teenagers to work as election judges?
Statewide, elections board administrators are seeking energetic young people knowledgeable about electronics to fill the perennial need for thousands of local poll judges, using a law that went into effect in 2001 allowing high school students to serve.
"They are excellent workers, and they are so not intimidated by electronics," said Jacqueline K. McDaniel, Baltimore County's supervisor of elections. "Every place we put them, they say, 'Send them back to us.'"
State Administrator of Elections Linda H. Lamone said officials have received no complaints about 17-year-olds working as poll judges, who register voters, issue voters cards and guide voters through the process.
"They are dedicated, hard-working young people," said Lamone.
The teens, who must have parental permission to work at the polls, are supervised by adult employees.
This year, with a new law allowing for five days of early voting in Maryland before the primary and general elections, the need for poll judges is greater.
"This election, we are making a major effort to recruit high school students," said Barbara Fisher, the Anne Arundel County elctions administrator.
Officials in Carroll, Howard and Harford counties said they are also making such an effort. Baltimore administrator Gene M. Raynor said he would use teenage poll judges but has not recruited any.
Zemen Retta, 18, of Howard County might be the ideal recruit. Some teenagers are attracted by the $165 a day Howard's board pays judges, or the $125 offered in other counties. Not Retta.
"I honestly thought it would be a good experience because it's something new," said the Columbia resident, recruited by Howard County elections officials who visited Atholton High School recently. "We're trying to get people to vote."
Retta, president of the Maryland State Youth and College Division of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said she helped register 70 voters before the 2004 election and would have been willing to work as a poll judge without pay.
"People died for those rights. It would be shameful if we didn't carry on that legacy," she said.
Teenage judges became legal in Prince George's County as a pilot program after the General Assembly approved a 1999 bill sponsored by state Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat. Statewide, the minimum age for judges was lowered to 17 in 2001.
In 2004, Prince George's recruited 124 high school students, said Alisha Alexander, deputy county elections administrator. The county elections board created a recruitment video using pop music and teenage characters, which it takes on the road. This year, Prince George's officials are hoping to employ 200 students as poll judges.
Teenagers offer a wealth of electronic knowledge, speed and endurance, Alexander said. Without them, she said, "we'd be missing out on a great opportunity."
Other counties also are recruiting aggressively.
Harford County officials used 75 high school students in 2004, said Kim Atkins, the county elections supervisor.
"It was outstanding. We need more young people," she said.
Patricia K. Matsko, director of the Carroll County elections board, said she, too, was pleased with the 18 teenage poll judges in 2004.
"They're full of energy and beloved by the rest of the judges because they look at them as their children and grandchildren," she said.
Betty Nordaas, the Howard County administrator, sees a public benefit in the county's recruiting effort.
"I just have a firm belief that we need to involve our young people in the process," she said. Using teenagers as judges "is giving them a chance to learn and takes advantage of their quick minds," she said.
Howard election officials visited all 12 county high schools to make their pitch and have received a generally positive response. They stress the pay: In addition to the $165 for the day, the judges collect $30 for attending two training sessions.
"It's a wonderful experience in the democratic process, but that's not going to get them to do it," said Howard County elections board worker Charlotte Davis.
At Centennial High School in Ellicott City, the money was enough to get some to sign up.
"We've got bills to pay this year. We're adults now. And we can work together," said Amanda Deering as she and fellow student Jessica Sturgill filled out green registration cards.
Matthew Hannon was eager, too.
"Right now I work 3 to 11, and I don't get paid anywhere near that," said Hannon, who plans to attend Howard Community College next year.
Still, it's not only about the money for him. "It's important to vote," he said.
Others, such as Jennifer Moffatt, 18, were less impressed by the county's pitch, which she heard at Atholton High School.
"I'm not into politics, and I don't know what [a poll judge] is," she said.