Kiara Hardin, 29, arrived at Parkside Community Academy in Chicago at 5 a.m. to set up a polling location for the primary election on June 28. The freshly trained, first-time election judge expected four other poll workers would be at the South Side elementary school to help; instead, she found herself alone.

Kiara Hardin (Photo by Leo Allen II)

After the location officially opened at 6 a.m., she was the only judge facilitating the democratic process for the first hour. Other election staff eventually showed up, but none of them stayed for the whole day, which lasted past 8 p.m., Hardin said.

She tended to the needs of voters as best she could, dealt with malfunctioning hardware and people who were at the wrong polling place. During her nine-hour day, a couple hundred voters streamed through the doors.

“A lot of people came, but they didn’t have the right polling location,” she said.

Attracting enough election officials to staff polling locations has been a perennial issue in the city and county, and in recent years it has only gotten harder to galvanize eligible Illinois residents.

Even before the pandemic, it was common for registered election judges – those who have completed training and are scheduled to staff a location – to not show up or resign before Election Day.

“Election judge shortages are a fairly common thing affecting most election agencies both here in the city, the county, the states and nationwide,” said Max Bever, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections (CBOE). This could be for a multitude of reasons: low pay, transportation issues experienced by judges and others.

In Chicago, of the 9,414 election judges scheduled to serve during the June 28 primary election, 34.7 percent of them resigned, while only 257 substitute judges were on hand to triage issues and address lack of staffing.

That left the city with only 6,139 judges to cover 2,069 voting precincts. The target number of judges the city wanted? 10,345.

Because of the shortage of election judges in the June 28 primary, election officials identified 56 delayed openings of precinct polling locations throughout the city, according to previous reports, affecting thousands of voters.

The issue in the June primary was there weren’t enough people applying to be poll workers, giving the city a higher inactive judge count compared to previous elections. On average, anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 judges who register to become election judges for every election do not end up serving, Bever said.

“Having worked precincts and coordinated election campaigns, there are always some judge vacancies, but never enough to cripple a precinct or at least more than one or two precincts in a ward,” said Dick Simpson, a professor emeritus of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago and longtime Chicago politics pundit.

“When you get this level, and since the vacancies don’t occur uniformly, you’ve got a real problem about operating in some precincts.”

After a controversial decision to reduce the number of precincts in Chicago between the primary and midterm elections, the city recently announced a reduction in the number of polling places for the November election to 945, down from the 1,043 locations of the primary.

Because of the consolidation, voters will likely have a new polling place assignment for the upcoming midterms, Bever said.

Reducing the number of precincts and polling places allows election officials to train fewer poll workers, which saves taxpayers money and allows for a more even spread of judges across the city.

“Hopefully, we will see six or seven per precinct polling place rather than just the target five, which would allow additional election judges and poll workers to assist more voters on election day, rather than having short staffed or empty judges tables,” Bever said.

Over the years, changes in voting habits have also forced consolidation. In the June primary, approximately 52 percent of voters voted early or by mail.

Election officials say they have met the target of 6,450 registered election judges for the upcoming general election, but it’s hard to predict how many will resign beforehand or fail to show up on Nov. 8.

The number of voting precincts and polling places in Chicago has steadily declined over the decades due to myriad factors, from city population loss to increased mail-in options to early voting.

The new ward boundaries were adopted by the Chicago City Council in May, as required every 10 years following the new census data. State lawmakers passed legislation allowing the election board to create new voting precincts containing up to 1,800 registered voters.

A benefit to reducing the number of voting precincts is that it saves the city money – the election board estimates it could save as much as $2 million per election because it will have fewer supply costs and need to pay fewer election judges to work the polls. Just over $50 million dollars was budgeted in the 2022 fiscal year for election administration.

“Good election officials should always be looking for ways to save money as long as it doesn’t inconvenience voters,” said David Orr, a former Cook County Clerk who oversaw election operations in suburban Cook County.

“When you have turnouts of 50% or less, often even smaller than that in November, and you have many cases with half the voters voting before Election Day, it’s legitimate to reduce those numbers.”

Suburban Cook County issues

The problems with election judge staffing is not unique to the city.

“We have seen approximately a 40% drop in the number of poll workers in the last eight years,” said Frank Herrera, communications director for the Cook County clerk.

Over the course of the last three midterm elections, the county has seen a reduction in election officials from 7,530 in 2014; to 7,100 in 2018; and to 4,500 who worked in the recent June primary.

Ahead of the gubernatorial election in November, the county has roughly 6,700 judges to cover 1,439 voting precincts. The target number – which would adequately staff precincts with one polling place technician and four judges – is 7,195, and a shortage of poll workers in the upcoming election could present challenges to voter access, delayed openings and other pitfalls.

To boost numbers, the county has worked with community colleges to offer college credit, as well as calling on veterans to work on Election Day. The county partnered with the Cook County Office of Veterans Affairs, local veteran hospitals, the Honor Flight Chicago organization, and local community-based veterans’ organizations with the hope of bolstering applications of poll workers.

Over the years, Illinois has made changes in requirements of becoming an election judge to bump up numbers. In 2019, high school juniors and seniors became eligible to apply to become an election judge. 

“We’re always concerned about the civic engagement, and most voting studies have shown (that) the earlier people start voting, it is kind of habitual,” Orr said.

This year, Nov. 8 will be recognized as a state holiday known as 2022 General Election Day and be deemed a legal school holiday.

“There’s over 100,000 educators in Cook County with all the various school districts and teachers and principals, and if I could, what better group to dedicate that to save our democracy, to serve as a judge. That could help us tremendously,” Orr said.

One of the ways to attract younger election judges in Chicago would be to increase digital advertising campaigns on social media, Hardin said. The first-time poll worker served during the June 28 primary and is now a fellow at Chicago Votes, a nonprofit focusing on election education initiatives and social advocacy.

“If they marketed via social media for a younger audience … I’m pretty sure that’s the group that needs” the money, Hardin said.

She is set to serve again as an election judge on Nov. 8.