RED PRECINCT — When Helen Burgstaler first served as an election judge in Crow Wing County, the Korean War raged, President Harry S. Truman was in the midst of his second term and Minnesotans handed Republican Gov. Luther Youngdahl a resounding reelection victory.
Seventy years later, the lifelong county resident sat inside Crow Wing Power on Super Tuesday, March 3, handing ballots to Red Precinct voters whose parents and even grandparents weren’t yet born when Helen began her service.
“Back then, we had paper ballots, and then we had to put them in an envelope,” 87-year-old Burgstaler said. “And then we had to sew ‘em shut with thread and needle … and then we had to put glue on it.”
That 1950 process is quite different than the electronic poll books and ballot machines of today’s elections, but after all those years, Crow Wing County’s longest-serving election judge by a long shot likes to stick to the paper.
“I laughed, I said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” Burgstaler said. “But since I’ve been here so long, they let me give the ballots and stuff, so I can still be at it. … They tried to teach me, but it is way above my head.”
Passion and commitment
While technology may not be her forte, Burgstaler’s dedication to democracy has her in a class all by herself, said Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson, who heads elections in the county. Toward the midpoint of her nearly 15-hour shift at the polls, Burgstaler appeared energized and ready for the expected after-work rush. She was in her element, surrounded by five others who felt the same pull to take part in the democratic process.
Burgstaler showed up, as she always has over the past seven decades — even just three weeks after the unexpected Feb. 11 death of her 96-year-old husband Edwin, with whom she spent 71 years. She’s served during 17 presidential elections, along with numerous other local, state and primary elections and as an absentee ballot judge.
Her service began when her father-in-law, who also served as an election judge, needed an extra hand in Dean Lake Township. At 18, her first election as a voter was also her first as a judge.
When the now-disbanded township — which Burgstaler has called home nearly all her life — transitioned to mail-only ballots, the election judge matriarch didn’t take that as an opportunity to retire. Instead, she took her skills first to Cuyuna, then to the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse and now to the Red Precinct, one of three precincts in Unorganized Territory north of Baxter. That’s an 80-mile round trip for Burgstaler from her homestead settled among 60 head of beef cattle, which she still tends to along with her daughter.
“Helen was one of the first election judges I met when I first started working elections, and … she already had probably close to 50 years under her belt as an election judge at that point in time,” Erickson said by phone Tuesday. “I’ve always been struck by her passion and commitment to the democratic process, to be willing to continue to serve as an election judge all these years. … She was always one who’s always been willing to say, I want to work a full day, and I’ll work however you need me wherever you need me to serve and help service the voters.”
Fellow election judges at the Red Precinct had nothing but good things to say about their long-serving counterpart.
“She’s amazing. Not only is she amazing about being an election judge, but her whole life is amazing,” said Rhoda Drake, who’s known Helen since she began judging about 15 years ago. “She’s a hard worker. And she drives a long way to get here, and she’s really dedicated for sure. … She’s a delight. I’m just really happy to work with her. I hope to continue working with her.”
Patriotism has always come easy for Burgstaler. She’s the daughter of a German orphan whose aunt smuggled him into the United States at age 14 — all in an effort to avoid his conscription in the German army during World War I. Burgstaler said her father became an American the moment he set foot on U.S. soil.
“He said when he’d seen the Statue of Liberty, he knew he was free,” Burgstaler said. “So then when World War II came, and people would say, well, you’re nothing but a German … he said, ‘No, I’m an American.’ … He said, ‘I wish I could go fight those dirty Germans.’ He was that patriotic.”
She recalled reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing patriotic songs while attending a schoolhouse where one teacher taught all the grades. Her favorite to sing was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Helping people through the process of casting their ballots is an extension of that love of country Burgstaler holds so dear.
“Well, I just feel it is so important. We have a wonderful country and there’s so many countries that don't have all the liberties we do,” she said. “And like I say, there have been a lot of people that have died for this freedom. And to me, it is so important. When people say, ‘Oh, it doesn't matter.’ It does matter. Every vote counts.”
Burgstaler worked hard to instill respect for voting in her six children, nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, along with the values of hard work and dedication she continues to demonstrate from the farm to the voting precinct.
“I keep telling them, you know, I don’t care how you vote, but be sure you vote,” she said.
Burgstaler has no plans to stop spreading that message or lending her expertise to Crow Wing County. She said she’ll continue serving as an election judge as long as she’s able.
“I think so, yeah. I don’t like to lay around,” she said. “I like to keep busy.”