An election judge’s perspective

Sometimes, metaphorically speaking, it’s good to see how the sausage is made. In my case, I had that chance when it comes to administering elections.

Josh Chetwynd

Why we should trust those who administer elections to get emergency voting by mail right

The author spent two elections working as an election judge in Denver. Photo credit: Josh Chetwynd.

Sometimes, metaphorically speaking, it’s good to see how the sausage is made. In my case, I had that chance when it comes to administering elections. 

In 2018, I wanted to give back to my community, so I took a position working as an election judge for the Denver Elections Division. During the primaries, I served in the county’s central counting room, tallying votes and adjudicating ballots when voter intent wasn’t perfectly clear.

In the midterms that same year, I took an election judge supervisor position, running a voter service and polling center and overseeing a team of 14. We were responsible for helping voters register, get verified for a ballot and then enter private booths to cast their votes.

This background gives me some perspective into how our regular voting process is being threatened by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Because widespread in-person voting presents a public health risk for the foreseeable future, states are scrambling to come up with safe, resilient alternatives.

Groups such as U.S. PIRG are urging states to institute emergency vote-by-mail and other procedures to ensure all eligible voters can have their voice heard in the electoral process without putting themselves in danger of infection.

Sadly, President Donald Trump has forcefully pushed back on this effort, calling it “horrible” and “corrupt.”

Having been involved in the nuts and bolts of elections, it’s hard not to take it a little personally when I hear that sort of criticism.

You see, Colorado, where I worked, is one of a handful of states that already mails every eligible voter a ballot, and that procedure is extremely popular. The year I served as an election judge, about 76 percent of those who received ballots by mail voted. If my experience in Denver is at all reflective of election workers across the country, those who manage this process take it very, very seriously.

Civic duty

For every person I worked with on these elections, this job was a civic responsibility — not a political one. When I supervised the polling center, my closest friend on the team and I had vastly different views on numerous policy issues. (Let’s just say he has a greater libertarian bent than I do.) Nevertheless, that fact never came up during our efforts to help citizens vote. Our sole focus was to assist each person who came into the center perform this essential American duty.

That same attitude applied when it came to adjudicating ballots in the counting room as well. The state requires that teams of two from differing parties determine voter intent on problematic ballots (for example, if it appeared that a voter ticked two different boxes in the same election). Not once during the process did politics come up. The goal was to follow the guidance of Colorado’s secretary of state and take a clear-headed and honest approach to every ballot.


Each election worker trained with seasoned professionals. But, more importantly, they were taught to ask superiors questions before ever acting unilaterally in situations where they had any doubt. In both facilities, most workers were thoroughly competent, but those who were unsure were smart enough to raise their hand to make certain they were following appropriate laws and procedures.


During my time with the Denver Elections Division, it would have taken an ”Ocean’s 11”-type heist to create any mayhem in this process. In the counting room, the computers were in a closed loop. Workers in each section of the building had special passes. We were required both to sign in and out whenever we left our work space and wear special vests. There were closed-circuit cameras everywhere and no cell phones were permitted.

Voting boxes at the polling center were locked and special tabs were placed on them to assure there was no tampering. Multiple redundancies made sure that no one person had the ability to control voting boxes. Anything is possible with enough effort — and, clearly, logistics differ from state to state — but as anyone I worked with can tell you, the potential for massive fraud definitely seems far-fetched. (It’s worth noting that studies and experts back up that assertion.) 

The upshot

Ultimately, to trust in the system is to trust in the people who administer it. Professionals who are responsible for making sure voting is done in an impartial and valid manner recognize that faith in the system is paramount. This means fighting fraud at every corner. (For instance, in Denver, there is a robust signature verification system for mail-in ballots.)

As someone who worked with and saw the mechanics of voting firsthand, suggestions that anything short of a full effort by election workers is painful. Even in these extraordinary times, the goal must be to get every registered voter the smoothest path to casting a ballot. If emergency voting by mail offers the best way for democracy to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, then I have no doubt that those charged with overseeing it will do so in a way that safeguards trustworthy elections.   


Josh Chetwynd