How do you feel about Election Day? For those working to elect a particular candidate, it is a big day, full of hard work and roller coaster emotions. For many others, especially when it is not a presidential election or some hotly contested local race, Election Day is pretty much like any other. Election results in Cook County bear this out. Since 1990, primary election turnout has ranged between 16% and 43%. General elections generate a bit more enthusiasm: turnout has ranged between 49% and 76%. Of course, this reflects only turnout among those who have actually registered to vote.
Still, most of us, especially lawyers, would say that the right to vote is one of our most important privileges of citizenship. Some go a step farther, volunteering their time to make sure that registered voters are not denied that privilege at the polls. In honor of Election Day, we’ve asked several attorneys to share their stories about serving as election judges (who serve as officers of the Circuit Court), poll watchers (who are appointed by candidates, political parties and nonpartisan civic organizations) and an attorney at Chicago’s Election Central.
Mary Gerak has her own practice counseling Fortune 50 companies on employment matters, and also works as an arbitrator and teacher. She first served as an election judge as one of a group of associates at a large downtown firm. She enjoyed it so much that she later volunteered in Cook and Lake Counties. She has dealt with several vote fraud allegations, and had to track down and identify some ballot boxes that went missing on the way to the central collection facility. Gerak noted that while it’s not necessary to be a lawyer to serve as an election judge, she believes the background is valuable. “When you are used to assessing facts and doing research, it gives everyone more confidence in the advice.”
Arthur Carvajal, Executive Editor and General Counsel at WebCE, Inc., has served as an election judge in Chicago several times, first hearing the call for volunteers on the radio. He was surprised how many people at the polling places asked him and other election judges for advice as to how to vote. “We stated very clearly that we were not permitted to tell them whom to vote for, but could help them vote for their choice.” One challenging situation arose when he was staffing a polling place in the fitness room of a condominium building. Residents were coming in for their regular early evening work-outs and wanting to watch the election returns on the rooms television screens, while others were still voting. “We had to just insist that the TVs remain off until the polls closed.”
Alexis Gabay, staff attorney at a major Chicago firm, grew up with one Democratic parent and one Republican. “Even though their votes canceled each other out every election, they always voted, and instilled in me the importance of the process,” Gabay said. When she moved to Chicago, she began serving as an election judge. She reported dealing with a number of interesting issues, including working to get disabled voters into inaccessible polling places, and one situation where the landlord forgot to unlock the polling area. After nine years as an election judge, Gabay was asked to serve as an attorney at the Chicago Board of Elections on each Election Day, taking calls from election judges all over the city about voting rules and requirements. Asked about the issues she dealt with, Gabay noted that most were fairly routine. “Most questions were things like directing voters to the appropriate polling place and assisting judges of election with procedural matters and equipment problems. We’d help the election judges and registrars sort things out.” One call she fielded was from one election judge who claimed that a fellow judge was actually campaigning in the polling place. Why does Gabay do it? “I love being there to support the judges of election. It’s a very long day for them, and I enjoy giving them the information they need to support the integrity of the voting process.”
Anne Manly, an attorney who is currently active in supporting better government issues and other not-for-profit work, has served as a pollwatcher for several Democratic candidates over the years, including Lisa Madigan and President Obama. After training at each candidate’s campaign headquarters, she was sent to “hot spots” where it was felt that there could be instances of voter fraud or intimidation. “Basically, we were trained to watch for electioneering, blocking entrances, or improper treatment of ballots–that sort of thing.” Pollwatchers are also charged with watching out for harassment. “At one polling place, we noticed that an election judge was criticizing voters for not speaking English. We notified other election judges, and they contacted election officials to intervene.” Asked why she works as a pollwatcher, Manly said it makes her feel proud to be an attorney. “While non-lawyers can and do serve, being an attorney brought credibility and authority. People know that we understand the rules. Voting is such an important right, and helping people exercise that right makes me feel good about contributing to our democracy.”
Interested in getting involved in this year’s (or a future) election?
- For more information about how you can serve as an election judge or pollwatcher, see The Chicago Board of Election Commissions website.
- Two civic organizations that work to ensure voters’ rights and train pollwatchers are The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law and Common Cause.
- Two organizations, Equip for Equality and Access Living, provide support on voting rights to people with disabilities.