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Judges cope when voting is a trickle

Last Tuesday was a slow day for voting in St. Francois County. Only 18 percent of St. Francois County’s voters turned out. And no one felt it more than the election judges.

At a Bonne Terre precinct, Jean Smith knitted.

June Yoder showed old pictures.

Herb House made coffee and petted his dog, Thumper, who snoozed by the ballot box.

The liveliest thing about this poll was the conversation.

“We solve all the world’s problems,” said Smith. “We’ve talked about the Pope’s death, the Terri Schiavo case and a lot more.”

The only thing they couldn’t talk about was politics. That’s probably a good idea since, by law, half of them are Republicans and half are Democrats.

“We have a good time,” said Kathryn Gower.

And when a voter came in the door of their precinct at Heritage Hall, they knew exactly what to do.

Gower and Smith looked in the list of registered voters to make certain their visitor was in the right place. If they couldn’t find the name, they had to call the courthouse. That wasn’t so easy at the start of this election day.

There was no phone connected in the room where the voting was done. And when it did ring, the call wasn’t about the election.

“They want Parkland Therapy!” said Geri Faircloth, who picked up the phone.

“Oh, they’ve got us hooked up to the wrong line!” said Gertrude House and she set about to make certain the man doing the connecting found the right hookup.

Seven of the eight judges at this precinct were veterans. Only Ed Yoder was working his first election. But that wasn’t a problem because his wife has been a judge for a few years and Yoder knew what to expect. Other judges are recruited by friends to join them at the poll. They have to be trained for the job.

On Election Day, they arrived a half hour before the first voter to make sure the polll was set up properly and to post signs outside and in.

No electioneering.

No smoking.

Instructions on how to mark a ballot.

A voter’s bill of rights.

Jean Young wore a pin that demanded, “Vote.”

Their work wasn’t done until the last voter had cast a ballot. Then, everything they did 14 hours before had to be un-done until the next election day. They made certain the electronic counter had done its job and then two of them took the ballots to the courthouse.

How many judges there are at each poll is based on how many voters are registered. For example, Leadington’s poll has only 300 registered. ome Farmington polls have 2,000. The more voters registered, the more judges to care for them.

There are 230 poll workers in the county, but County Clerk Mark Hedrick said there can always be more.

“We can always use judges,” he said. “They have to attend training once a year for two or three hours. They just need to call the office and have their name put on a list.”

The next training will be in the fall.

For every election they work they’re paid $80 a day. Supervisors get $5 more. Poll workers have to be voting age and have to be registered to vote.

“We do it because it’s important,” said Gert House. “We’re all retired here and so we can be here all day. It’s a shame more people don’t turn out to vote.”

Not all the work is done on election day. Teams of poll workers also witness the public test of the voting machines prior to the election. Others open and count absentee ballots and still others verify the results on the day after the election. For those jobs, they’re paid $40.

The state doesn’t require the judges be registered as a member of a political party. They just state their party preference to county officials. And the state requirements say no one can be a judge in an election where their name or the name of a close relative is on the ballot in a contested race.

This is a slow year for judges. There’s only one election. Sometimes, there are as many as five. And the poll workers say once you become a judge, you feel it’s your duty to remind people to cast their ballots.

“I think voting is a privilege,” said Pat Sikes, a poll worker at Bismarck’s municipal court building.

She recalls the time she didn’t have the privilege – when her husband found out she was going to vote for a candidate he didn’t support and so, he drove right past the poll.

“We were living in Doe Run and it was my first election so I didn’t get to vote,” she said with a chuckle.

Last November, they say 600 voters cast ballots at their poll. That kept them hopping. But they said how many voters depends on what’s on the ballot. They stay attentive, though, because you never know what might happen – like the year one voter fell in the arms of a judge.

“He was kidding and everything and then he went to vote and told us he got a shock when he went to mark his ballot,” Irene Huddleston recalled. “But it was his defibrillator in his heart that shocked him and he started to fall and Lucille (one of the judges ) caught him!”

Another judge called for paramedics and they were there in a flash. The voter was okay, but in the excitement, the judges don’t recall whether the man ever got to vote.

Other voters left the judges with a smile.

“There was a man today who said that machine (that takes the ballots) reminded him of his wife taking his money,” said Nelda Crocker and the judges – all of whom were women – giggled.

It was Crocker’s job to ask for identification from every voter – that’s the law. And though it may seem silly in a small community like Bismarck where everybody seems to know everybody, Crocker said people understand the judges have to see proof they are who they say they are and live where they say they do.

One voter who left the Bismarck poll stopped to thank the judges – for the music. Through their laughter, they confessed they were singing as she arrived because they hadn’t had a voter in awhile.

On a slow election day, they said it helped to pass the time. But, they added, musical talent isn’t a requirement for the job.

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