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Chicago Sun-Times

Election judge Jerome Gay monitors voters at the Chicago Board of Elections’ early voting Supersite during the fall mid-term elections. Teens who sign up to be election judges play a vital role in Chicago, making sure all the polls are able to open.

Pat Nabong

Teens step in to make sure Chicagoans can vote today

Hundreds of teens from about 60 Chicago public schools will serve as election judges Tuesday on the last day of voting, playing a vital role in ensuring the polls are open. High schoolers account for 13% of the city’s nearly 6,600 judges.

“Our high school judges are extraordinarily important on Election Day. They’re really our frontline workers,” said Max Bever, a spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Election.

The students are recruited and trained through a partnership between the Chicago Board of Elections and the Mikva Challenge, a local youth organization that develops young people to be informed and active citizens.

“I feel like it’s a very important responsibility to help people vote and make a difference in democracy,” said Matthew Chico, 17, a senior at George Washington High School on the Southeast Side.

This year, nearly 900 students will serve as judges on Tuesday, the last day of voting in the races for mayor, city council and, for the first time, police district councils. About 1,100 high school students participated in the November midterms. Officials said the partnership allows teens to get a first-hand look at how democracy works.

Students report for duty at 5 a.m. and are paid $255. Workers are responsible for opening and closing the polls, assisting voters, handing out paper ballots and more. They received in-person training this winter through the Chicago Board of Election for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matthew, who served as a judge for the first time in November, learned about the opportunity at school and signed up to earn some extra cash. He said the experience taught him a lot about how government and politics work.

“Now I understand the importance of voting [in local races] and doing your research so you know who you’re voting for,” Matthew said.

Chicago Sun-Times

An election judge at work at a polling place in Humboldt Park during last fall’s mid-term election.

Pat Nabong

Carla Rubalcava, the managing director of Illinois programs with Mikva Challenge, said young people like Matthew bring “essential skills” like enthusiasm and technological savvy to help people exercise their right to vote. And in turn, the experience helps teens gain leadership and communication skills.

“Young people bring a different vibe and energy to our polling places,” Rubalcava said. “It sets a really different tone to have so many young faces leading our elections.

Rubalcava points to findings by a research center at Tufts University that shows young people who get involved in hands-on civic participation are more likely to be lifelong voters. After serving as election judges, 98% of students who participated in Mikva’s program said they intended to vote in future elections.

“Our young people are really nimble and flexible,” she said. “They have a lot more expertise and agency than we give them credit for.”

About 1.5 million people are registered to vote in Chicago. As of late Monday, 15.5% of eligible voters had cast ballots so far. Turnout in the last municipal election four years ago was 35.5%. Last fall, about 46% of registered voters cast ballots in the midterm election — the lowest citywide figure for a midterm election in the past 80 years, according to a recent WBEZ analysis.

Bever said the city is fully staffed with 6,589 judges, but could still use standby judges to cover any absences. The Board of Elections assigns five judges for every precinct and there are 934 polling places serving 1,291 precincts.

About 95% of polling places are the same as in November, Bever said. Voters can check their assigned precinct polling place here or they can use one of the city’s 51 vote centers open Tuesday.

Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ. Follow @nereidamorenos and @WBEZeducation.

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