Elections officials are urging younger Minnesotans to step up to serve as election judges this year. The COVID-19 epidemic, which is more dangerous for the elderly, is prompting some veteran judges to decline to serve in 2020. This photo was taken at a Mankato precinct during the 2018 general election.

{child_flags:featured}Shortage of election judges a concern

{child_byline}By Mark Fischenich


MANKATO — From the Blue Earth County Courthouse in Mankato to the Secretary of State’s Office in St. Paul, elections officials are apprehensive about whether they will have enough election judges to provide the usually pain-free voting process that Minnesotans are accustomed to.

“We are struggling a bit this year because of COVID,” said Michael Stalberger, who oversees elections for the city of Mankato and for rural parts of Blue Earth County.

When it comes to elections judges, both supply and demand could be impacted by the pandemic, which has been particularly severe for older members of the population. And retirees have traditionally made up a disproportionate share of poll workers.

“That’s the running stereotype out there — that our election judges have a little more experience on this planet,” Stalberger said.

The stereotype is true, with more than half of local poll workers in their 60s or older.

“We have a fair number in their 70s and 80s,” he said.

The county sent out emails to more than 400 people who served as election judges in 2016 and/or 2018, and more than a few have already indicated that underlying health issues or general concern about COVID-19 will keep them from signing up for the 2020 elections.

“I’ve personally had 15 or so saying they can’t serve because of COVID,” Stalberger said.

Even if people sign up and take the training, there’s a danger that a resurgence of the pandemic — or individual illnesses — could prompt some of them to stay home Aug. 11, when the primary election is, or Nov. 3 for the general election.

“There may be additional folks on Election Day who say they don’t feel safe or don’t feel well,” he said.

While it’s true that gray hair is common behind the tables at polling places, Mankato also has traditionally relied on its large population of college students for election judges. More than one in five fall in that category, and Stalberger has to consider the prospect that local colleges might still be doing distance learning Nov. 3. If that’s the case, most students at Minnesota State University and Bethany Lutheran College would be residing in their hometowns rather than their dormitories and be unlikely to travel back to Mankato simply to work on Election Day.

Then there’s the demand side. Mankato typically needs about 150 judges for a primary election, a number that grows to roughly 230 for the busier general election. Add in the rest of the county, and the required number is more like 350.

Even more workers will probably be needed in 2020 if traditional job duties — greeting and registering voters, demonstrating how to vote and providing ballots, overseeing the ballot-counting machines, providing other assistance to voters and compiling precinct statistics — are expanded to also include measures aimed at preventing the spread of infectious disease.

“When you think about it, in a typical election you don’t need a judge to wipe down tables or sanitize pens,” Stalberger said.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon on Thursday implored younger residents to step forward to allow older election judges to step aside this election.

“It’s no secret that our usual poll workers, some of whom have done outstanding work for decades, tend to be older,” Simon said. “But this year, those friends and neighbors are the ones who are most susceptible to COVID-19. We need others to take their place. The polling places will be safe and clean, with masks, wipes, and hand sanitizer for every poll worker.”

Simon also issued a warning that Minnesota’s tradition of well-run elections could suffer if there’s a substantial shortage of poll workers.

“What happened in Georgia this week was a warning to Minnesota,” Simon said. “Voters in many areas of the state found themselves waiting in line for multiple hours and faced with voting equipment difficulties, caused mostly by a shortage of poll workers. We saw similar problems in April, as the voters in Wisconsin’s primary were faced with no choice but to wait in long lines because there simply weren’t enough people to staff polling places.”

Cities typically handle poll worker recruitment and training, so citizens interested in serving can check with their city clerk. Mankato, however, contracts with Blue Earth County for elections administration, so Stalberger’s office handles recruitment and training. Mankatoans can find the election judge application on the county website or they can call 304-4341 to ask questions or have an application sent to them.

As always, residents fluent in non-English languages are particularly valuable — especially East African languages and Spanish for certain Mankato precincts. But any eligible voter who can read, write and speak English and is available to complete the required training is encouraged to apply. Students who are 16 or 17 years old can also serve as an election judge trainee.

Although many judges volunteer their time, some precincts pay an hourly wage.

Training sessions for the primary election begin in about two weeks, Stalberger said. Another round of training will be provided for judges signing up for duty on Nov. 3. And he suggested the county will be willing to get people trained up even if they’re tardy in offering their services.

“We’ll make sure we include folks up to the very end,” he said.

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