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Maryland election judge volunteers report slow, sometimes no response to their offers to work pandemic election

Christy Frink of Baltimore has volunteered to be an election judge in November in the city.
Christy Frink of Baltimore has volunteered to be an election judge in November in the city. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The message has been loud and clear: Maryland has a shortage of election judges, typically older adults who have opted out this year because of increased health risk from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But some people across the state who have applied for the positions say they’ve been put off or received no response.

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Some disappointed would-be judges contacted The Baltimore Sun about their experience. Others have posted on the Reddit social network, swapping ideas about how to get applications answered. Still others contacted members of the State Board of Elections — enough that its chairman shared his dismay at a recent board meeting.

“When a person steps forward and raises their hand and says, ‘Here am I; send me,’ you do not tell them to call back in a couple of weeks,” Michael Cogan, chairman of the state board, said last week, relaying that he heard from an “absolutely reliable source” about their experience.

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“You do not put them off. You reach out, and you take their hand and you say, ‘Thank you,‘” Cogan said.

It’s not clear where the breakdown in the system exists. State officials say they’re forwarding applications to local election boards daily, and local election officials say they’re responding as quickly as they can. Some have speculated that indecision regarding the election’s format has led to delays, but local officials insist they haven’t been intentionally unresponsive to potential judges.

Without election judges, Election Day isn’t possible. They check in voters, confirm that they are registered, ensure they get the correct ballot and watch to make sure ballots are cast appropriately. During the pandemic, judges have taken on new responsibilities: cleaning surfaces, offering hand sanitizer and making sure voters remain socially distanced. The pay for Election Day ranges from about $185 to $350 in Central Maryland, including a stipend for an earlier training session, depending on the locality and a judge’s duties.

With older adults particularly susceptible to the virus, many judges who reliably work elections every year decided to bow out for 2020.

There are various ways to apply for the job in Maryland, but the most widely publicized is an application portal on the State Board of Elections website. That link, shared numerous times on social media by the state board in the past few weeks, asks residents for contact information, party affiliation and experience with computers, and inquires about their ability to speak, read and write English.

Nikki Charlson, the state’s deputy election administrator, said she wasn’t aware of problems with the system. State board staff review applications and forward them to local election boards based on where a prospective judge lives and is willing to work.

The frequency of those transfers depends on how many requests are submitted. At the moment, that information is being transmitted daily, she said.

The state has forwarded 8,200 interested people so far in August to local boards, Charlson said.

Nancy Fenno Boyd, 45, a resident of Frederick County, said she applied to be a judge three times from July 10 to Aug. 6 before getting a response. As a civil engineer, Boyd has Election Day off, but she never thought to apply to be a judge until she saw news coverage of the shortage for the general election.

A response came only after she emailed a general mailbox at the State Board of Elections, requesting an acknowledgment of her application. Email records show a state employee forwarded her note to Frederick County election officials, who responded Aug. 10.

“We have your information. You’ll be hearing from us by the end of the month,” wrote county elections director Stuart Harvey. “The state is still determining the shape of the election.”

Harvey could not be reached last week for comment.

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When election officials were expecting to open the usual roughly 1,600 polling places Nov. 3, they reported they were short more than 14,000 judges out of the total of 25,000 needed. They lobbied Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to cut the number of voting sites, and he agreed Aug. 10 to a plan to offer 360 voting centers statewide.

Under the new plan, which includes a week of early voting leading up to Election Day, about 15,880 judges are needed.

The Frederick County Board of Elections this week mailed Boyd an application to become a judge that was identical to the ones she filled out online. No explanation was included, she said.

“I’m still curious: 1. Why it took so long for someone to acknowledge? and 2. Why they’re waiting until after the number of polling places has been decided?” she said. “Isn’t that the cart before the horse?”

David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, a group that represents local election directors across the state, confirmed that state officials have been forwarding applications daily from potential judges.

Garreis, who is also deputy director of elections in Anne Arundel County, said he couldn’t comment on how individual directors have handled the requests, but Anne Arundel has been responsive, he said.

“If someone applies, we try to get in touch with them as quickly as possible,” Garreis said. “I‘m sure other local boards are doing the best that they can.”

It took Baltimore resident Christy Frink two tries. The 34-year-old applied on the state website several weeks ago after hearing news accounts of the judge shortage.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m young and healthy. I can step up and do this,‘” Frink said.

No response came. Frink then saw a thread on Reddit in which people complained of applying and not receiving a reply. Heeding advice from some of the commenters, Frink emailed two employees of the Baltimore City Elections Board and finally heard back.

“They said my completed application has been received, and they said they would reach out when and if training happened,” Frink said. “I thought the ‘if’ was weird. Are you having training? The timing was after the announcement the governor had approved the plan. It wasn’t like they were waiting on some designation.”

Frink said the process was frustrating, particularly considering widespread concern about the integrity of the fall election.

“If they have a wave of people stepping up who are new to the election process, they should have an interest and a stake in getting those people trained up and ready to work,” she said. “We’re hearing all this screaming about there are no election judges, but then you have this group of people who have stepped up to do it.”

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Armstead Jones, director of the Baltimore City Board of Elections, said his staff has worked to reach potential election judges as quickly as possible. Jones said it is possible they have not reached every applicant yet; some staffers have been out sick.

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The staff mails each person an application, he said, but has not yet sent further information about training because a schedule is still being finalized.

Baltimore has 2,900 potential election judges signed on currently. Jones said that’s more than the 1,500 to 1,800 that will be needed to staff Election Day in the city, but in any given year, several hundred usually drop out along the way. Jones expects to lose about 500 this year.

The city election office has never intentionally missed potential judges, he said.

“I don’t play that kind of stuff,” he said. “When we need people, we need them. Because in the end, we’re going to lose people.”

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