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Election Judges Prep for Long Day Ahead

We're almost there. Primary election day in Illinois is tomorrow. Polling places are already getting set up Monday, and election judges have been going to trainings for weeks. WBEZ political reporter Sam Hudzik attended one in south suburban South Holland, and prepared this audio postcard.

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The Election File

HARWELL: Good afternoon.
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon.
HARWELL: How's everybody?
AUDIENCE: Blessed.
HARWELL: Alright, alright, alright.

Carol Anne Harwell works for Cook County Clerk David Orr, who supervises elections in suburban parts of the county. This day she's at the South Holland Community Center, training about 60 polling place workers; some new, some who've been doing it for decades.

HARWELL: Now, let's get started. What's the date of the election?
AUDIENCE: February 2nd.

Almost every seat is full for the afternoon training and the crowd is, as you'd expect, mostly of retirement age. Across suburban Cook there will be close to 10,000 election judges. Many of them attend three-hour trainings like this. There're no breaks, no snacks. It's a crash course in polling place management.

HARWELL: And it's a gubernatorial primary, right? What does that mean? What is a primary? What does it mean? Come on, we're on the radio, show me, act like you know what you're talking about. What's a primary? It means that voters have to declare their party, is that right?

And Harwell warns them that this step tends to cause problems.

HARWELL: You say to them, what? You tell them they have to declare a party? And then they get mad, don't they? And then they start going back-and-forth. They tell you, "I don't got to declare nothing," don't they? And then you say, "Yes, you do." And then they say, "No, I don't." And the fight is on, right?

Most of the training is spent on all the forms and terms election judges will use tomorrow. You have provisional ballots, federal ballots universal affidavits, undervotes, overvotes, split precincts - there's a glossary of this stuff in the 116-page election judge manual. And then you have the equipment.

BOBBY MENDEZ: What you're telling them as they're walking up to this machine with their card is not to pull out the card until it pops out...

These judges will be joined at the polling place by what're called "equipment judges" who've received three-times as much training. But everyone has to know the basics, so the judges are spit into smaller groups for demonstrations.

BOBBY MENDEZ: Okay, and it's actually going to print your votes on this paper here...

There is significant confusion here. The switch in recent years to touch-screen voting, some judges say, makes the training more complicated, but election day easier, with none of those "hanging chads." Most praise the training, though Lucy Hojnacki of Chicago Heights says she wishes it was spread out over a couple days.

HOJNACKI: I think it's okay, but I think it's a little too fast and it should be a little bit more definite.

HARWELL: Can I move on? Okay, we've got everything set up and it's now 6 a.m. It is time for the first announcement of the day. What is it?
AUDIENCE: The polls are open.
HARWELL: Oh, that's so weak. Come on.
AUDIENCE: The polls are open!
HARWELL: Very good. The pools are now open. For those of you who are new you may think they're playing, but that's actually what you're supposed to do. You go to the door at 6 a.m. and fling it open with flair and grace and with drama and all that you can muster. You yell out into the darkness of the night where no one is standing and you say...
HARWELL AND AUDIENCE: ...The polls are now open.

At the end of the training, Harwell sternly reminds the judges they have to pass a test before they can get paid. And she doesn't like cheating.

HARWELL: You got to stop talking. You got to stop talking. Stop talking.
 
The two talkers, sitting in the front row, met thirty years ago at the South Suburban chapter of the Disabled America Veterans.

SACKS: I'm Stephen J. Sacks.
KRAMER: And I'm Donald Kramer.

And they're both longtime election judges.

KRAMER: My wife started me doing it, before she passed away, and I've been doing it ever since.
HUDZIK: I guess, if you guys have been doing it for so long, it's kind of an old hat for you.
SACKS: Every time we come to a training session there's always something that's changed.
KRAMER: Different. See, I can't remember like I used to no more. I'm a little older than I used to be.

The judges here will each get $170 - payment for the training and Election Day - plus a bit more if they pick-up or drop-off supplies. Some say the money's one reason they do it, but there's another reason according to 78-year-old Lois Clay, who says she's been an election judge for almost a decade.

CLAY: Sitting at home, when you get to be my age, you don't want to sit at home. You go out and you meet a lot of new ladies, and we still keep in contact with each other.

Clay says she gets a little sleepy during the long election shift; 14 hours or more. But she has fun. So on Tuesday, like thousands of others, she'll wake up well before dawn to get ready for another day at her polling place.

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