The first thing Jackie Wells did on her 21st birthday was register to vote.
Because her mother was an election judge as she was growing up in Annapolis, she learned from a very young age that her vote was her voice. As soon as she was old enough, she knew she wanted to exercise the right that so many had fought to win.
Now 75, after decades of working in local politics and advocacy, Wells works as an election judge, too.
As she weighs the risk of working this election with her age and the coronavirus pandemic, Wells is thinking about the gravity of the centennial anniversary of the right to vote for women today, and is holding out hope for the world in which her 3-year-old great-granddaughter, Brielle, may one day end up on the ballot.
Wells is one of roughly 1,000 women in Anne Arundel County who facilitate democracy directly by spending long days at the polls, helping to ensure that the process runs smoothly and fairly, and making sure that voting is accessible and comfortable for everyone.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland and Anne Arundel County have reassessed the plan for in-person voting. Instead of having 195 local polling precincts, Anne Arundel County will likely have 28 large voting centers. This consolidation brings the number of election judges needed from 2,800 to 1,700, though the Board of Elections is still about 300 election judges short.
Though election judges are paid, none of the women interviewed for this article said money was their driver. For some, it’s about contributing to the democratic process. For others, it is about setting an example of engagement for their children or grandchildren. Others say it is simply their way to give back to the community.
Wells, like many other women election judges, said that though equal rights for women have come a long way in the last 100 years, there is still progress to be made. Though the 19th amendment was ratified by two-thirds of the states on Aug. 18, 1920, it didn’t necessarily ensure voting rights for women of color — barriers kept them disenfranchised for years longer.
Wells’ passion for involvement in a fair democracy was ignited by her mother, born just one year after the 19th Amendment was ratified, and her grandmother, born in 1902. She keeps it alive by making sure Brielle, though only a toddler, knows that opportunity is out there for her to be a leader and make further strides for equal rights.
“All the opportunities in the world can be out here but the kids have to want it,” Wells said. “You have your world at your feet.”
Jill Nicholas’ mother first served as an election judge in California when Nicholas was in fifth grade. Her mother’s involvement in the election process had an impact on her from a young age, and seven years ago, she decided she would sign up to be an election judge and hopefully inspire her own children in the same way.
“I thought that would be a great way to teach them the integrity of the process,” Nicholas said. “When I see people talk about (voter) fraud in the election, I have to say, everything I have witnessed in Maryland, there’s just no way that could be an issue.”
Nicholas said the anniversary of the 19th Amendment is even more reason for women especially to vote.
“I am a very independent woman. I can’t imagine not voting,” Nicholas said. “I can’t understand, I can’t even fathom that we didn’t have voting before that.”
Though 47-year-old Genevieve Torri has never missed an election, her true foray into politics came later because she grew up understanding the topic as taboo. She applied to work as an election judge in November in hopes of alleviating pressure on judges who may be immunocompromised or worried about exposing their family members to the virus. Because she is managing Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley’s 2021 campaign for reelection, Torri said Wednesday that her application was rejected.
Though it was not something her family talked about at the dinner table growing up, Torri said one of her earliest memories is election-related. When she was7 years old, she remembers sitting in the dark basement of her family’s small Lansing, Michigan, home with her mother, while they watched the 1980 election night coverage on a tiny TV propped up on a folding chair.
Torri’s mother sobbed as it became clear that President Ronald Reagan would take the election. Torri understands her mother’s reaction now as a fear of how the administration might impact their family financially, though her mother died recently and the two never discussed it.
“It made me realize elections aren’t just about the most popular person winning — people really are affected personally and they bring it into their own homes,” Torri said.
Torri described her understanding of the progress that has been made since women were granted the right to vote in 1920 as broad and historical, but also as deeply personal. The immediate evidence for Torri is in the boldness of her two daughters. Though 19 and 22 years old, both have been home since March because of the coronavirus pandemic. She’s had a front-row seat as they have grown in their understanding of the issues of the day, and their comfort and willingness to address them directly.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Though she doesn’t think either of her daughters will pursue a career in politics, she hopes her working as an election judge and encouraging political involvement will continue to influence them.
Election judge Mona Grupp, a veteran who retired from a career in emergency response communications, said the centennial anniversary has also prompted her to think about her daughters.
“Things are just so different. You have choices and you have options and you don’t have someone telling you how you’re going to do it,” Grupp said.
Still, there are times when her adult daughters recount familiar tales of sexism in the workplace and she thinks, “I thought we already fought these battles.”
When she’s at the polls, Grupp said seeing families is one of the best parts. When parents come into her voting center with young children, sometimes they are stressed and distracted, and she’s able to play with the kids in order to give parents the space to focus on their ballots.
Another part of the process that makes the long days worth it, she said, is seeing the way people look when they leave the polling place.
With an “I voted” sticker, residents almost always leave her precinct walking a little taller, she said.