Early voting for the March 6 primaries in Texas started this week. But, if you plan on voting on Election Day, it’s possible you might run into someone at your polling location with the title of “election judge.”
As part of our Texas Decides project, a listener wanted to know what they do and how they got that job.
First thing’s first: an election judge isn’t an actual judge. Just ask Ginny Knapp.
“I am not a judge,” Knapp says. She’s a term-appointed election judge in Travis County.
In that position, she’s more like a poll worker. When you vote, she’s one of the people who greets you, gives you your ballot – and an “I voted” sticker.
Even though election judges aren’t actual judges, though, they do settle disputes about election law at a polling location.
“Every polling place needs a presiding officer – somebody to rule if there is any sort of question or dispute, something that needs a tiebreaker,” says Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. “And the presiding judge of the polling place does that.”
Knapp says, in her capacity as an election judge, she takes this seriously.
“I have the total authority to enforce the laws of the election,” she says. “And if I have any problem, then I call the elections office. And if the voter is not happy with that, I refer them to the Secretary of State’s office.”
DeBeauvoir says election judges also maintain law and order in a polling site.
“The law does allow them for that one day to have some powers of a judicial officer,” DeBeauvoir says. “They can maintain peace in the polling place and that allows them to ask people to leave and to summon law enforcement. And no one else can do that.”
Ultimately, election judges are in charge of running a polling location. Knapp says she manages other poll workers and makes sure the site is open and running.
“At 6 a.m. the poll workers, the clerks and I get there, we take our oath of office, and then we start setting up the equipment and doing our paperwork and getting ready for the first voter to come in,” she says.
Election judges work long hours on Election Day. They are the first people to get to a polling place and the last people to leave.
During early voting, by the way, people who do the work of election judges are called “deputies” and they are hired by a county’s elections office.
But folks with the designation of “election judge,” who work on Election Day, are actually appointed by political parties.
Cindy Flint, with the Travis County Democratic Party, is one of the people in charge of finding these election judges. In fact, Flint has been recruiting all this week.
“It’s that magic time of year,” she says. “The Democratic primary is upon and that’s one of our primary responsibilities is to have election judges at all the polling places.”
Those election judges are selected by whichever party won the governor’s race in that particular precinct in the last election. So, Flint says, every two years, she and her counterpart in the Travis County Republican Party send out requests and appoint people for each location they won.
“You know, gosh darn it, it isn’t as easy as it sounds hiring 750 people to work 14 hours on a Tuesday in March,” Flint says.
And while it’s hard work, she says those polling locations do get staffed – eventually.
“It is, as I say, the work of the angels … what the election workers do for all of us, so that we can have an opportunity to cast our votes,” Flint says.
It’ll take more than a thousand people to run the primary on Election Day in Travis County alone and these election judges will be among those making it happen.