Off to the polls: Volunteers, workers aim for smooth Election Day
Erickson said she’s happy to help reiterate some of the procedures and training election judges underwent this summer and ensure they oversee the process with confidence.
BRAINERD — Vibrant oranges and pinks peeked through the clouds as the polls opened 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, Nov. 8, but the woman in charge of ensuring smooth operations on Election Day walked through the doors of the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse nearly two hours earlier under darkness.
Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson readied herself for a very long day likely to last through the early morning hours of Wednesday. Dressed in jeans, a blue Crow Wing County T-shirt and a black blazer, Erickson sported an American flag brooch on her lapel — an inherited treasure for her Grandma Mable she dons for the big day.
“My former boss Roy Luukkonen was a very traditional auditor from that perspective, wore a suit and tie every single day to work. And his one quirky thing was on Election Day, he always wore a flag-printed tie,” Erickson said. “ … I don’t have a flag tie, but I do have my flag pin. So I always wear my flag pin as my good luck reminder for the day.”
Just after city and town halls across the county began welcoming voters to cast their ballots, Erickson fielded calls from clerks and election judges seeking technical assistance with poll pads or ensuring they were interpreting instructions correctly.
Erickson said she’s happy to help reiterate some of the procedures and training election judges underwent this summer and ensure they oversee the process with confidence. When clerks came Monday night to pick up equipment and materials bound for polling places, Erickson said she gave them a pep talk and expressed her gratitude for their commitment.
“I always tell them, ‘You’ve got this, good luck, follow your instructions, everything will be fine,’” she said. “We have really, really, really good head election judges and clerks in our county, and they are well prepared to handle Election Day. I think it always is the lead up — it’s a big deal, and they take the responsibility very, very seriously. As they should, absolutely. So it’s always that anticipation of it coming before it actually gets to the point where it’s time to go out and do it. Once they get in a groove, they’re fine.”
In the field
The first voter showed up to Nokay Lake Town Hall at 6:15 a.m. Election judges said later that morning the man had to travel to work in Duluth and wanted to get in and out of the polling place as quickly as possible.
More voters trickled in and out of the little rural town hall as the morning went on. First-time election judge Rick Felt could be heard explaining the number of Brainerd School Board candidates each voter could choose, with three votes available for the four-year seats and two for the special two-year seats.
The School Board race was one voters said they were paying special attention to this year.
“The School Board is huge,” Mark Cunningham said as he and wife Lisa left the town hall after casting their ballots. “We need to get that changed around so that our kids aren’t indoctrinated.”
But with 16 candidates running for the five seats, the Cunninghams said they weren’t sure how it would go.
“I’m worried it might be too many because it gets votes split up,” Mark Cunningham said.
Jerry and Marlene Morgan said they also had their eyes on that race, along with the race for governor between Gov. Tim Walz and Scott Jensen.
“I’m feeling optimistic. We’re hoping,” Jerry Morgan said, as the couple finished voting early so they could get off to work.
Brian Hemler said he was feeling hopeful as well and planned to watch all the contested races as votes are counted in the evening.
Chatter flowed freely among the six election judges at Nokay Lake Town Hall as they waited for voters to come in, with the expectation of 8 a.m. being a busier time as people stop by on their way to work.
As a first-time judge, Felt was happy to be doing what he felt was his civic duty.
“I had been in the military. The first time I ever voted was overseas,” Felt said. “I served the Army and was proud of, you know, protecting our rights to vote and everything, and I just saw some things in the election process, and I realized that all of us need to get involved and make sure that we keep up the right to vote and make sure that it’s a fair process for everybody.”
Back at the historic courthouse, Erickson commenced the work of the ballot board about 8:30 a.m. on the third floor. The board, consisting of two pairs of election judges representing the two main political parties and nonpartisan elections staff, is tasked with processing absentee and mail ballots. About 1,500 ballots remained for the board to process Tuesday.
Crow Wing County residents Dale and Cindy Westhoff attended as members of the public to observe the process, seated behind Plexiglas on a wooden bench used in the gallery of a courtroom in a previous life. The couple planned to vote themselves later in the day.
“This election is very important to us,” Cindy Westhoff said. “So we wanted to be a part of it, you know what I mean? So we’ve been pretty involved in trying to know everything that’s going on. It’s our civic duty.”
After swearing in the ballot board by oath, Erickson approached the public viewing area and explained the process underway to the Westhoffs. Precinct by precinct, ballot board members opened signature envelopes and removed the secrecy envelopes inside, which contained the ballots to be tabulated after the polls closed.
Once separated from the exterior envelopes, the secrecy envelopes are shuffled to ensure no ballot can be tied to a specific voter. One Republican election judge and one Democratic election judge together review a ballot to look for any possible mistakes by the voter that might trip up a tabulator — for example, crossing out a name and filling in a new oval.
“They have statutory language, an example of how to determine what that voter’s intent is,” Erickson said. “If the judges, who are working as different political parties, determine that that ballot needs to be remade in order for that voter’s intent to be counted, there is a statutory process they go through.”
After explaining that process in detail, Erickson answered a couple of questions posed by the Westhoffs before leaving the room to complete her next task. The Westhoffs said they would consider possibly serving as election judges themselves in the future.
“We’re just interested in learning the process and election integrity and all of that,” Dale Westhoff said.
“And luckily, we’re retired right now, so we can do that,” Cindy Westhoff added. “I think so many people would like to, but they’re working.”
Much of Erickson’s Election Day workload consists of answering questions and providing guidance to the hundreds of people administering the election as well as voters themselves.
Roberta Vickerman of Brainerd, an election judge serving in the historic courthouse, asked Erickson how to handle voters at the counter who were upset about their precinct using mail balloting. Erickson explained those decisions are made at the local level by city councils and township boards, and instructions included with the ballots are prescribed by state law. In this case, the township at issue began using mail balloting four to six years ago.
The voters weren’t happy with this response and made it known. Vickerman said despite sometimes difficult interactions, her experience as a judge was generally good.
“Most people are really nice, and it’s been great to hear the ‘thank yous’ that we’ve gotten,” Vickerman said, signaling to fellow election judges Sandy Cosert and Terri Tepley. “We appreciate that, you know, because it’s been very busy and there’s a lot to know. That’s what’s so nice about working with a bunch of different people. We all remember different things, so that part’s been great.”
Election judges working in three different polling sites reported voter concerns with the pens available and whether the tabulators would read the ballots correctly. The pens provided by the county, which have been deployed in previous elections, feature quick-drying ink and reduce the chance of smearing, Erickson said.
One man brought his own pen to mark his ballot, according to a clerk who spoke with Erickson — an acceptable practice, as long as it meets criteria.
“During public testing, we actually mark our ballots using a variety of pens. We mark them with pencil, we mark them with a black pen, a blue pen, we mark them with a quick-drying flair pen, and we mark them with a Sharpie, just to prove that the Sharpie will work as well,” Erickson said. “The only things that we do not allow are gel pens or red ink.”
Shortly after 10:30 a.m., a judge from a northern precinct sought advice on how to respond to a voter making accusations about the tabulating machines being connected to the internet. Erickson told the staff member on the call to explain this scenario isn’t possible, and if the voter has more specific questions, they were welcome to come to the historic courthouse to learn more.
Meanwhile, Erickson coordinated employees to deliver extra rolls of receipt tape to polling places across Crow Wing after at least one clerk reported a low supply — just another behind-the-scenes task the county’s elections head completed to keep Election Day on track.
In the face of increased scrutiny in the last two years on election procedures and questions about integrity, Erickson said the volunteers who help make the election happen are dedicated community members serving their neighbors.
“For the most part, these are election judges who are working in their own communities and they’re serving the people that they know. And they’re working to serve their neighbors,” she said. “ … Our community is small enough that pretty much every election judge is going to know somebody who comes through the door at some point during the day.”