In search of decent judges

September 15, 2006

If there is one lesson to be derived from the many snafus of Maryland's primary election, it is the importance of having competent and adequately trained workers staffing the polls. For all the heated debate about technology, security and early voting, the system's greatest vulnerability turned out to revolve around the quality and quantity of election judges. Most of Tuesday's worst problems could be traced to the fact that too many of the state's 20,000 election workers didn't show up for work, forgot crucial supplies or couldn't operate the equipment.

What's needed now is not recriminations from politicians and local election boards but a workable plan to recruit and train election judges before November's general election. That won't be easy. The shortage of qualified judges has been a long-running problem. The ideal candidates would be energetic, computer-savvy people with flexible schedules who are willing to work a 14-hour day for not-great wages.

Where does such a talent pool of willing and able workers exist? The solution is as close as the nearest college campus.

Indeed, the University of Baltimore has worked to recruit and train area college students, but with modest success. On Tuesday, local polling places were staffed by no more than a dozen or so students recruited through the UB program. A major obstacle was timing: Students returned to campus Aug. 28 and had until Sept. 6 to be identified and trained by the city's election staff. State law also requires judges to be Maryland voters, preferably registered in the county that hires them. That eliminates out-of-state students.

But such challenges can be overcome - with a concerted effort. Two years ago, UB used a federal grant to hire a half-dozen recruiters to scour campuses from Towson to downtown Baltimore. That effort produced more than 150 student judges.

Nationwide, the average election judge is 72 years old. Should we be shocked that some of them are uncomfortable with technology? As one UB professor notes, a 19-year-old college student is willing to actually read a computer manual. Competent election judges might also be found elsewhere - local corporations could help tremendously by recruiting from their employees - but college political science programs might be the more natural fit. After all, how valuable would it be for a student to not only witness democracy in the field but serve as its temporary referee as well?

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