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Election judges on the front line of voting credibility
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Ramsey County Voter Registration Specialist Rachael Smith prepares potential election judges during training. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
An extraordinarily tight presidential race, an expectation for a heavy turnout and an unprecedented amount of scrutiny are putting added pressure on elections officials this year. Political parties are soliciting volunteers to watch polls for any obvious irregularities in case the results are contested. The potential for challenges shines a spotlight on those people hired for a single day to oversee the logistics of voting---the election judges.

Minneapolis, Minn. — A deep interest in public affairs and a sense of impartiality prompted Monroe Bell to first sign up as an election judge 10 years ago. The 73-year-old also just likes running into his neighbors at his precinct polling place near downtown Minneapolis.

"Sitting at Central Lutheran Church, helping people come in and cast their votes," Bell said. "That's a good way for a retired person to spend 15-hours isn't it?"

Bell is signed up as a Republican but says he's more of an independent voter. He understands Tuesday's election could be the closest--and most closely watched--since he started working as an election judge. Still, his experience with fellow judges gives him confidence the system will run smoothly.

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Image Minneapolis Election Judge Monroe Bell

"Our task, our commitment is to help the process be fair and to deal generous-spiritedly with anyone who comes in," he said.

The potential for foul-ups is one of the reasons Dick Croft signed up to be an election judge for the first time this year. An Employment Law Judge for the state of Minnesota, Croft also calls himself an independent voter, but signed on as a Democrat election judge. He said he wants to lend his skills for settling disputes to help clear a path for the most basic privilege of democracy.

"I guess I'm just a little concerned about people who come to the polls not being able to vote because they don't have time because of the long lines or they're dissuaded by some sort of legalisms or too much hassle or something like that," Croft said.

Election judges are on the front line of maintaining credibility in the election system. Each of Minnesota's 4000 precincts requires anywhere from three to 16 judges, so elections officials are busy recruiting and training people to man the polls.

Election judges have the power to deem someone ineligible to vote if that person isn't registered properly or can't prove he lives where he says he does. But the judges also assist disabled or confused voters and make sure the machines correctly record each ballot.

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Image Judges in training

Larry Jacobs, director of the 2004 Elections Project at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, said the state law requirement for a balance of political party representation at the polls is usually enough to maintain integrity in the polling place.

"We count on our election judges to be absolutely impartial and nonpartisan," Jacobs said. "If there are any variations from that we're going to hear about it. But I think the key thing here is the discussion and concern about election judges is just another example of how the parties are keeping a very close eye on the process."

That close eye is already raising concerns in Colorado, where more than 6300 felons and prison inmates showed up illegally on voter registration rolls, and other voters who thought they were registered were turned away in early voting. In Florida, some counties are using new touch-screen machines after that state's butterfly ballot became synonymous with voter confusion in 2000. Jacobs said Minnesota's same-day registration and a history of clean elections works in the state's favor.

"It's a testament to Minnesota that we are not seeing controversies--at least to this point--of the kind we are seeing in Colorado and Florida," Jacobs said. "Minnesota has a triple A bond rating in terms of the sterling quality of the election process we have run in the state and I think there's a lot of reason to expect it will happen this time as well."

Attorneys for both Republicans and Democrats are already preparing legal arguments in case they need to challenge election results. As in Florida in 2000, any legal dispute will highlight how well election judges provide access to the polls.

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