Gearing up for November’s election
Our view: More election judges, long-term reforms are needed
Given the problems that bedeviled Baltimore City’s primary election in April, city officials clearly needed to act to avoid a repetition of that episode in November’s general election, when many more people are expected to vote. That why on Wednesday the Board of Elections approved spending $130,000 to hire and train 1,000 more precinct judges for the general election six weeks from now. Managing an election that size — the city has 296 precincts, more than any other jurisdiction in the state — is a massive logistical challenge, but it’s essential the process be carried out in a way that allows voters to have confidence in the integrity of the results.
After April’s primary, state investigators concluded that about 1,700 ballots had been handled improperly, including 1,200 provisional ballots that were scanned into the tally without judges having verified that voters were eligible, flash drives with voting results that went missing for hours and an additional 500 provisional ballots that were never even considered. No doubt part of the blame for those problems must fall to the fact that hundreds of precinct judges, who were supposed to supervise the voting and settle potential disputes, simply failed to show up for work on Election Day.
The problems were so severe that state elections officials had to temporarily decertify the election results until the snafus were sorted out, and even then a group of activists asked the courts to order a re-do of the entire election. The City Council is slated to hold hearings next month into why the system broke down, but from what we already know about the difficulties voters and election officials faced in April it’s clear there’s no simple solution to the problem.
Start with the precinct judges. Each precinct is supposed to be staffed by at least two judges, one representing each of the two major political parties. But in a city like Baltimore, where nine out of 10 voters are registered Democrats, it can be difficult to find enough GOP judges to staff every precinct. Add to the that the relatively low pay those monitors get — just $165 for regular judges and $225 for chief judges for an extremely long day of work — and there’s not a lot of incentive for people to sign up for the job, especially given that precinct sizes can vary enormously, ranging from a few hundred voters at some polling stations all the way up to several thousand at others.
That can mean a lot of work, especially for the chief judges, who are responsible not only for the overall supervision of their precincts but also for all the administrative labor that goes with it, such as returning ballots and voting supplies to headquarters after the election, signing payroll slips and other bureaucratic chores. Moreover, there’s virtually no penalty for judges who don’t show up. Though they undergo several hours of training before the election, it’s basically a one-day job at just over $10 an hour, so recruitment is difficult.
Besides the shortage of judges, there’s also the chronic dearth of resources for other aspects of the election process, such as equipment, supplies and voter education and outreach programs. Voters need to know how the system works, where their polling places are located and their hours of operation, plus how to use the machines once they get into the voting booth. That information is supposed to be mailed out to voters prior to Election Day, but the cost of doing so can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, forcing elections officials to scrimp on other things, such as creating instructional videos for poll workers, publishing manuals for precinct judges and recruiting the kind of people who can be counted on to serve responsibly at all levels of the process.
Finally, any time the system changes, as it did this year, it’s a challenge for both the people operating the new equipment as well as for voters who use it to cast their ballots. Baltimore hasn’t used paper ballots in decades, and voters here had never used a scanner to register their choices until this year. The combination of unfamiliar new equipment, procedures and systems, coupled with inexperienced or unreliable judges in what was Baltimore’s largest primary in 20 years — some 140,000 voters showed up at the polls in April — made for the perfect storm of errors and irregularities that characterized the last election.
With at least 100,000 more voters expected to cast ballots in November, officials should be taking every possible precaution to ensure it doesn’t happen again. For now, that means hiring more election judges. In the long run, the city should consider reforms like reducing the number of precincts and allowing independent or third-party judges to serve in lieu of Republicans.