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Election workers make democracy happen

Election officials put in long days to make sure every vote cast is counted

BROWN COUNTY — Tuesday was another historic election night in the United States and the reason these elections can happen at all is thanks to the hard work of Election Judges.

Every polling place in Minnesota is managed by a team of poll workers and election judges. In the General Election, precincts with more than 500 registered voters must be assigned at least four election judges. Precincts with fewer than 500 registered voters must be assigned at least three election judges.

Judges range in age from senior citizens to teenagers. Some have worked elections for 30 years or more and some are brand new, but they all have a desire to serve on the night most crucial to American democracy.

A day in the life of an election judge starts early in the morning, before the sun rises. Election workers must be at the polling place they are assigned at 6 a.m.

Head Judge for New Ulm’s Fourth Ward Heather Bregel said she is awake at 4:30 a.m. to get to the polling location on time to get things ready for the day. This means putting up the proper signage, counting out the blank ballots and setting up the voting machine. After everything is set up for the day, election judges take the oath and open the doors promptly at 7 a.m.

Bill Furth has been an election judge for over 30 years. It is a job he enjoys doing because it is fun and a great way to meet the people in the community.

Bregel said an audit is conducted every hour. The judges count the number of election tickets they received to confirm this matches the number of votes tallied by the voting machine.

Much of the election judge’s work is answering questions for voters and making sure everyone is at the correct location.

Bregel said it is not uncommon for a person to come to the wrong polling place to vote. New Ulm is divided into four wards. On some occasions, a person will move to a new address and not realize their polling location has changed.

Voter registration can be another common issue. Ward One Election Judge Keara Curtiss said registering new voters is one of the election judge’s most important tasks.

Minnesota allows for same-day voter registration. To register, a picture I.D. is needed along with a document showing a person’s current address. If the picture I.D. already has the current address, it is a little quicker.

Heather Bregel began working as an election judge in 2010 after seeing the need for poll workers.

The General Election saw a high increase in voter registration. Curtiss said as of 2 p.m. on election day, the First Ward completed 57 same-day voter registrations. Brown County as a whole would see approximately 500 new voters registered.

Bregel said Ward Four usually has a high number of same-day registration. The Fourth Ward is the location where Martin Luther College (MLC) students vote and many are voting for the first time. Bregel said many come in groups, meaning multiple students needed to be registered at once. However, 2020 saw fewer same-day registry because the COVID pandemic forced MLC to send students home. Ward Four still managed to register over 30 voters by early afternoon.

The polls close at 8 p.m. but if a person is in line to vote at 8 p.m. they can still vote. Traditionally, at 8 p.m. an election judge will go to the end of the line to mark the cut-off point of who was in line by the deadline.

Once all voting is done, judges can count the number of ballots in the machine. Bregel said they must account for all filled-out ballots, all spoiled ballots and all unused ballots. The sum of these ballots must match the number given to the polling location at the start of the day.

After this is done, the two head election judges bring the ballots to the Brown County Courthouse to be accepted by the elections department and tabulated with the other precincts in Brown County.

Dick Seebooth was trained in as a first-time election judge Tuesday. Seebooth said he decided this year to help because he was self-employed and the flexibility to help.

This makes for a long day. Bregel said in 2016, she did not go home until 11:45 p.m. That is over 18 hours in a single day.

The 2020 election cycle was a unique year for election judges as many worked extra days. For the first time, Minnesota did a Presidential Primary in March.

As luck would have it, this primary occurred a week before most of the United States entered lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The regular primary that followed in August and the November General Election were held with additional health and safety precautions. This meant all polling locations required masks and regular cleaning of voting booths.

The 2020 election also introduced curbside voting. Some people who planned to vote in person were unable to enter the building because of the COVID quarantine. A family member would become sick days before the election, preventing them from entering the building. For these few cases, Curtiss and other poll workers brought the documents out to a parked vehicle to assist with the voting process.

The big surprise for election judges, the 2020 election had few hiccups. Bill Furth has served as an election judge for 30 years and worked in New Ulm’s Fourth Ward. He reported the process went “real smooth” without any major problems.

Ask about the roughest election he had seen, Furth said he would never forget the first District 88 school bond referendum vote. There was only a single polling location and it was located in the lobby of State Street Theater.

“That was crowded, to begin with,” Furth said, “but the whole district had to come to one spot and no one knew their precinct.”

Curtiss also cited the school bonding election at State Street as her wildest election judge experience. The process was time-consuming and the line to vote was out the door and out to the street. But they made it through that election and continue to return each election cycle.

Furth said he started as an election judge 30 years ago after reading about the job in an advertisement.

“I thought it might be fun,” he said. “It is a great way to see and meet people.” Election judge is one of the rare jobs that allow a person to put a face to a person’s name.

Curtiss has worked as an election judge for 13 years. She started in Cambria Township after a town clerk recruited her to help. Once she moved to New Ulm, Curtiss decided to keep doing it as a way to give back to the community.

“I see it as my civic duty,” she said.

Bregel started working on the election in 2010 after working with the city. “I heard talk that election judges were needed and it sounded interesting,” she said. “I am just interested in the process from start to finish.”

The 2020 General Election is over, but there is always a new election a few years away and new election judges are always needed. To apply, contact a city or county election office.

Minnesota Election judges must be eligible to vote. Students 16 and 17 years-old can be election judge trainees. Election judges are restricted from having relatives serve together or having relatives as candidates.

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