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The pandemic has brought a new wave of younger election judges, but will it be enough to staff polling places?

Check to see how your area is doing so far in the search for election judges

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The COVID-19 pandemic led many election judges to back out of the March primary election, and so many Illinois counties looking to recruit a new demographic of judges for this November.

The McHenry County Clerk's Office -- tasked with facilitiating the election in its area -- has partnered with the McHenry County Regional Office of Education to recruit more high school students to serve as judges, County Clerk Joe Tirio said in an interview in mid August.

McHenry County had more than 90 election judges call off leading up to the March primary, but the county still fared much better than other areas that were forced to close down polling locations at the last minute, Tirio said.

“All in all, we did pretty well due almost entirely to the election judges that we had who were really focused community servants and saw they had a job to do and took that job very seriously,” Tirio said.

Chief Deputy Clerk Debra Nieto estimated that the average age of McHenry County's election judges in past elections was around 67 or 68, meaning the majority of judges fall into age groups at a heightened risk of experiencing complications with a coronavirus infection.

Anyone who will be at least 16 years of age on Nov. 3 is eligible to be an election judge, he said. The clerk's office has worked with advanced placement U.S. history classes in past elections to enable students to get service hour credits for working the polls, Nieto said.

Tirio said his office needs all the help they can get on Election Day, during early voting and in the vote-by-mail signature verification process, which is also done by judges.

After hearing about the shortage of election judges in the news, Cary resident Danny Woestman said he and his wife, Sarah, decided to help out on Election Day since they are both younger and in good health.

Given that Election Day has been declared a state holiday for the November election, Woestman said nothing prevented them from registering. They attended an election judge training held by the county Aug. 22, where they learned everything they will need to know, he said.

“I’m grateful for people that are willing to do this on a regular basis and we’re just trying to chip in where we can,” Woestman said.

In DuPage County, between 2,500 and 3,000 election judges are needed to staff polling places, County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek said.

The county recently reported a total of 3,694 Democrats and 1,744 Republicans in its database who have expressed an interest in becoming election judges, Kaczmarek said. However, this does not mean they have committed to working the polls in November, she said.

"We'll have enough judges, but we are always recruiting," Kaczmarek said. "Election judges are unsung heroes. They make the election run."

DuPage County launched online election judge training last week and had about 250 people go through the training, she said. The online training takes roughly 75 minutes to complete.

Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham said he currently has a full contingent of 1,500 election judges who will be masked, gloved, gowned and wearing visors while on duty as added COVID-19 safety measures.

He even has extra judges who will be on hand to step in in case someone cannot work that day, he said.

In Will County, just over 1,700 election judges are typically needed to work on Election Day.

Charles B. Pelkie, the chief of staff to the county clerk, said on paper, the clerk's office has about that many people signed up to be election judges. The clerk's office is still recruiting more people to be election judges as they're anticipating some people cancelling if the pandemic worsens by November, he said.

Will County offers the three-hour election judge training regularly for those wishing to work the polls, Pelkie said.

The clerk's office updated its training manual for judges ahead of the March primary and has posted training videos on its website for parts of the job that are "particularly complicated," Pelkie said.

La Salle County Clerk Lori Bongartz said she thinks she'll have enough election judges come November.

While Bongartz typically needs 350 to 400 election judges, recent changes to state law has provided her with a bit of wiggle room going forward. She needs only three judges instead of five depending on the size of the precinct.

Bongartz said she has an existing pool of about 400 election judges and plus another 101 whose applications have been returned and who now are waiting to begin classroom instruction. Classes will be held across the sprawling county through the end of October.

Putnam County Clerk Dan Kuhn said he is still working to fill election judge spots. He typically needs 40 judges — five judges for each of the county's eight precincts. Kuhn said he is still working on scheduling a time for election judge training.

In Bureau County, County Clerk Matt Eggers said he currently has enough election judges to place three pollworkers in each of the county's 50 precincts, which is all he will need.

Training will be offered 1:30 to 6:30 p.m. Oct. 6, Eggers said.

DeKalb County Election Judge Coordinator Lynne Kunde echoed the consensus across the region that election judges are always needed, but that the need is more dire this year due to anticipated COVID-19-related cancellations.

Election judges are crucial to ensuring that an election is conducted "with integrity, efficiency and knowledge of the election process," Kunde said.

Cary resident Allison Carmody stepped up this March to fill in as a technical judge – the lead judge of a polling place – the day before the election.

“I've been [an election judge] for many years and have kind of watched the technical judges so I felt comfortable enough doing it,” Carmody said. “Definitely a learning experience.”

This time around, the expansion of vote-by-mail and the number of new election judges who have reached out to serve have left him feeling wary but prepared, he said.

More 120 new judges have signed up to work the November election in DeKalb County, but Kunde said she won't know for sure whether the county's polling places are adequately staffed until she hears back from judges about their assignments at the end of the month. She will need three judges to staff each of the county's 65 precincts for a total of 195 judges.

Kendall County Clerk Debbie Gillette said staffing the county’s precincts with enough election judges is among her concerns as Election Day draws near, but she remains hopeful.

Gillette's goal is to have five election judges at each of the county’s 88 precincts, equating to over 400 judges, she said.

In the March primary election, about 100 judges throughout Kendall County canceled due to the then-emerging COVID-19 pandemic, Gillette said.

Gillette said her office has sent out letters to prospective judges seeking commitments for the Nov. 3 balloting. Those who sign up and complete a required online course will earn $150.

In Bureau County, election judges are paid $145 for working Election Day and $15 for attending the mandatory training class, Eggers said.

In DeKalb County, the rate for working on Election Day is $150, Kunde said.

Election judges in La Salle County get $160 plus mileage reimbursement. Those who pick up and return election supplies receive an additional $10, Bongartz said.

McHenry County election judges are paid $150 for Election Day and $10 per hour if they choose to work early voting or other hourly assignments, Tirio said. Judges are also paid for the mandatory four-hour training they attend after registering.

This rate is a slight increase over judges' pay in the March election, which was $140 for Election Day and an hourly rate of $9.25, he said.

Many local counties decided to up the rate of pay for election judges this fall to incentivize more people to participate and to account for the added safety concerns judges will face working during a pandemic.

As of right now, the Will County Clerk's Office pays election judges $90 for working an election and $60 for training, but Pelkie said the office is wanting to pay judges an extra $100 for this election. This would be a one-time raise using funds the county received through the federal CARES Act.

"We want to make sure we acknowledge the commitment they make and incentivize the judges," Pelkie said. "We understand the risks involved."

In Kane County, judges are paid $200 and an extra $40 for their training, Cunningham said.

“We are … looking at adding another $60, but I’ve not pulled that trigger yet,” he said. “I can probably cover that cost from the CARES Act package. I’m also trying to save money here as much as I can.”

On Sept. 1, DuPage County released a notice that it too would increase pay for pollworkers this election season, doubling the typical rate. Since then, another 500 people have applied to work the polls, Kaczmarek said.

There is the base pay of $130 for Election Day, plus a COVID-19 supplement of $130, she said. For early voting, the base pay is $10 an hour and judges will get an additional $10 an hour.

For more information about becoming an election judge, visit the website of your local county clerk's office or contact your county clerk directly.

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