Democracy’s Referee: A precinct judge talks about corruption, compromise, and chaos

Before 1970, primary elections to determine political candidates were like the Wild West: nominal laws existed, but precinct captains ran individual precincts however they wanted. Voters could be intimidated, influenced, or misled; celebrities and reporters jammed polling places, adding to the chaos. But a landmark court case in 1970 established strict rules which primary polling places have to follow, and people like Harold Wolff were given a task in managing democracy.

Wolff serves as a precinct judge, a position he’s held for over fifteen years. These judges are the front line between the populace and the government, setting up polling places, assisting voters with whatever questions they might have, and preventing hanky-panky by the campaigns (at least at the polling places). There are five judges for each precinct, and the parties themselves are responsible for staffing the five positions with each party providing two judges and the third going to the more popular party in the precinct. It’s a volunteer position, but sometimes volunteers are not forthcoming. Hyde Park “is full of wealthy professors, and so it’s hard to recruit people from the area, to get them to give up their time and energy for being a judge,” Wolff notes in a not-quite-scornful tone. An organization called Legal Elections at All Precincts helps provide judges when no one from the area comes forward to volunteer, and it’s this organization which assigned Wolff to the polling place for the twenty-seventh precinct in the fifth ward, Ray Elementary.

Wolff is a veteran of many political skirmishes, having worked on campaigns and been involved in politics in both Chicago and Boston, but he doesn’t have much mud on him from working in Illinois. “Chicago is jousting with New York and Philly as the most corrupt political city, but corrupt officials in Illinois get thrown in the clink.” Wolff’s skills in nosing out corruption were honed at Boston College, in what he calls “the most corrupt place on Earth.”

Voters usually don’t notice judges, and if they do it’s usually a momentary pity for the poor sap who has the thankless task of collecting all the ballots. Indeed, Wolff’s description of the work makes it seem arduous: “We’re there from five in the morning till nine at night, and there is a mass of paperwork that has to be turned in quickly. We have to set up the voting booths, tables, signs…it’s hard work.” And that’s besides dealing with boneheaded voters. Wolff chuckles while relating a story from 1971, when a woman candidate ran in a city race and a voter demanded to know how to “vote for the lady.” After the 1970 reforms, judges of the election aren’t allowed to steer voters to vote for different candidates, so voters with no clue put judges in a tough position.

Smart-ass voters are a problem, too. Every election brings some wild-eyed rebel who write in Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck as their vote; the problem is that, according to the rules, only candidates who have submitted a request to the election board can be written in, so that people like Wolff have to patiently explain to those dangerous flouters of convention that, no, Mr. Duck is not an eligible candidate.

As far as the primary election that was just held, Wolff was terrified about one thing: the turnout. The fault lies with the Palevsky dorms: “Those big orange dorms added a big number of student voters. Most precincts have around 600 people in them, but because of that dorm there are 900 in this precinct. The last time this kind of turnout was expected was when Obama ran for the Senate.” Speaking of Obama, this time around, “the Hillary people are very hostile to the Obama people. They’re not too keen on this guy.” Another part of the judge’s job is making sure that groups don’t turn the polling place into a mob riot, and keeping rival campaigns from getting bloody with each other. Most of the work is in calming down people who are excessively excited, “but sometimes we get these gung-ho groups that come along, and we try to keep a relatively relaxed place.”

Judges of the election may be the most essential volunteer jobs in government today. Democracy can’t work without polling places that are run efficiently and impartially; judges of the election make sure that happens, with little compensation, and with smaller gratitude from the people they’re helping. The most they receive is satisfaction of a job well done. And aching feet. “There’s lots of standing . . . I’ll probably be near death by the time it’s all over.”