The Future Vote Initiative trains students to serve as election aides.

Editor’s note: Bethesda Beat is participating in Democracy Day, an effort by media organizations to draw attention to the crisis facing democracy in the U.S. by providing the public with the information they need and to bring all types of media together to sound the alarm collectively. As part of our partnership, we are highlighting the important role that poll workers play in local elections.

When Priscilla Quackenbush and her family moved to North Potomac from South Korea in 2006, she discovered that students in Montgomery County public schools were required to complete 75 hours of student service learning in order to graduate. Her oldest son was in middle school, so she looked into opportunities for him.

A teacher recommended the county Board of Elections’ Future Vote Initiative, which began in 2004 with the goal of increasing civic participation and knowledge of the political process, according to the program’s website. Through the program, students are trained to work as election aides at the polls. 

Quackenbush said she and her husband, both serving in the U.S. Army, wanted to introduce to their three kids to the idea of having the right and responsibility to vote.

“That’s really what I was looking for: something that, at an early age, we could get our kids exposed to the whole idea that we have elections every two years, and it’s every person’s responsibility, everyone who’s eligible to vote, to at least make an effort to cast their vote,” Quackenbush said. 

From there, Quackenbush’s entire family got involved. She and her husband became election judges and are now both chief election judges. Her two sons, now both in their 20s, were trained through the Future Vote program and served as chief judges when they were in their late teens, she said. Her daughter participated in the Future Vote program as well.

Bethesda Beat is participating in Democracy Day, an effort by media organizations to draw attention to the ongoing assault on democracy in the U.S. Credit: Democracy Day

Each election cycle, about 3,000 people help to run the polls, elections board spokesperson Gilberto Zelaya said. The elections board tries to predict turnouts and trends, he said, but it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many poll workers will be needed — the last midterm elections in 2018 were pre-pandemic, so the 2022 elections are the first midterm elections affected by the pandemic. 

“We always want more [rather] than less because we always want to build a standby list,” Zelaya said.

Registered voters in Montgomery County are eligible to sign up to become election workers as long as they meet the requirements detailed on the elections board website. Poll workers must be 16 or older, but those who are as young as sixth grade may join the Future Vote program, Zelaya said. The workers get paid for training in addition to staffing the county’s 257 polling places during the election cycle.

Zelaya said the elections board is looking for bilingual election judges, recognizing Montgomery County’s diversity and differing linguistic needs in the area. The elections board accepts applications year-round, according to its website, but the deadline to apply to work in a specific election is 21 business days prior to the election.

Every Montgomery County election worker signs an oath to uphold Maryland’s Constitution, Quackenbush said.

“It’s serious business,” she said. “Everyone has to sign the oath before they’re sworn in, basically, to the position.”

The Montgomery County Board of Elections trains residents to work at the election polls. Credit: Montgomery County Board of Elections

Quackenbush said she has worked all over the county — she’s been stationed at a different precinct every election. Most recently, she worked at Cabin John Middle School in Potomac for the 2022 gubernatorial primary election in July and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda for the general election in 2020. 

She said she likes going to different precincts and working with different people.

“Every precinct has its own setup that’s specified by the Board of Elections,” Quackenbush said. “Their team has come in and already marked off and determined where every table’s gonna go, every scanner’s gonna go, every poll book where you sign your voters in is going to go.”

The chief judge is responsible for ensuring that the precinct’s workers follow that layout. There are ideally two chief judges at every precinct, Quackenbush said, but because the elections board is short on election workers, some of the smaller precincts only had one chief judge for the July primary. 

Chief judges have worked during a prior election as an election worker, Quackenbush said. Based on that experience, they may be identified as being a good candidate to be a chief judge. 

Gaithersburg resident John Moore, an administrator at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., worked as an election judge for the first time during the July 19 primary election at Cabin John Middle School in Potomac.

Moore said he has lived in Maryland for more than 35 years and has voted in “pretty much” every election. 

“When you’re a voter, the system is largely invisible unless there’s a problem, and I’ve never had a problem,” he said. “Once you’re on the other side of that dynamic, it’s a different experience.”

On primary day, he spent most of his time checking in voters as they came through the door of the polling location.

About 90% of voters can be described as what the elections board considers the “perfect voter” — someone who walks in and is deemed properly registered, votes and then leaves within minutes, Moore said.

The other 10% takes up “about half of the total time of election judges,” Moore said, referring to voters who need “a little extra help” such as requiring a provisional ballot, language translation or other accommodation. 

At the end of the primary election day, Moore left about an hour after the polls closed, and he was “probably” the first to leave the precinct. Other election workers had been at the polls the night before to set up, with some arriving as early as 5 a.m. on election day and leaving around 9 at night.

Moore helped with transporting boxes of ballots to the elections board office in Gaithersburg. Machines printed slips indicating the number of ballots and the party affiliation in each box. Multiple witnesses signed documents affirming that the seals on the ballots had not been broken. 

“Anybody out there who’s concerned about election integrity really doesn’t need to be,” Moore said. “I probably had half a dozen documents that were basically signed affidavits saying that no one has opened this box.”

Christine Zhu of Gaithersburg, a junior at the University of Maryland who is studying journalism and Spanish, is a former Bethesda Beat intern.