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Key part of election machinery neglected

The Baltimore Sun

Imagine the job announcement: "State of Maryland seeks temporary employees to safeguard democracy. Candidates must be willing to work for below the minimum wage without benefits or gratitude, enjoy inflexible and long workdays, attend multiple training sessions, and be prepared to deal with angry voters. Interested? We want you to be a Maryland election judge."

As the General Assembly considers how to regain the trust of Marylanders in the way elections are conducted, it would do well to look beyond early voting, paper trails and Diebold machine flaws. The training and temporary employment of Maryland's 20,000 election judges are critical and overlooked tasks that the legislature and the governor ought to rethink before the polls reopen again statewide in March 2008.

We served as election judges in 2006 and co-wrote a report as part of a pilot project to encourage professors and students across the state to work at the polls. Our experience was mixed. On one hand, we found that election judges took pride in working with their neighbors on the important task of helping their community vote. On the other hand, the length and inflexibility of the time commitment were perceived as onerous.

Some judges were required to attend as many as three training sessions, pick up equipment on the Saturday before Election Day, help set up on the Monday night before the election, and serve two, 14-hour shifts (primary and general election) with no breaks. No one told us that he or she worked as an election judge for the nominal pay.

Given the inflexibility of the system, is it any wonder that the national average age of an election judge is 72? For many working parents with children to pick up at soccer practice and dinners to make, the long days and time commitments are too daunting. Retirees - with more time and scheduling flexibility - have picked up some of the slack, but there was still a shortage of judges in Maryland in 2006. Fourteen-hour days can be taxing on septuagenarians, too.

However, there is a great pool of untapped, qualified help waiting to be asked to serve as election judges in Maryland: students. Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. has introduced legislation that takes the first steps toward bringing 18- to 25-year-olds into the election administration process without a costly overhaul of the system. The bill requires that no classes be held in the state higher-education system on Election Day in November; that polling places be opened on public college and university campuses where more than 500 students, faculty or staff vote; and that college-level credit be offered for students who serve and go through the training process.

Should Maryland desire diverse and qualified citizens to serve as election judges, the legislature ought to also consider allowing for split shifts, so that a busy parent can take a few hours off in the afternoon to pick up kids at school or run a quick errand. Similarly, most businesses have few incentives to encourage workers to participate as judges. State government should ask the public and private sectors to find creative ways to free citizens to enable fuller participation.

As things stand, public officials show little awareness of the important role played by election judge volunteers. Nor do political parties show much appreciation for election judges that serve as Democratic or Republican party representatives. Even at training sessions, there is little recognition of the importance of the job that is so quietly crucial to the success of democracy.

Elections should not be treated as merely an administrative instrument of government to choose leaders; they are part of the foundation of democracy. Civic participation and engagement in elections reinforce a shared political experience and commitment to democratic governance. Maryland ought to take a proactive approach to how it staffs its polling places across the state and make a concerted effort to get young people involved.

Michael Cain is an associate professor of political science and a member of the advisory board of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland. His e-mail is mjgcain@smcm.edu. Zach Messitte is an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary's and director of the center. His e-mail is zpmessitte@smcm.edu.

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