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Brown: Student judges hold their own on Election Day

People vote at a public library in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago in 2016. | Getty Images

Chicago polling place jobs used to be the strict domain of retirees and friends of the Democratic precinct captain.

Then in 2000, Mikva Challenge arranged with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners for 50 high school students to work as election judges.

That was the year of George Bush, Al Gore and the “hanging chads” that mucked up the old punch-card voting system and exposed weaknesses in the administration of U.S. elections.

Much has changed in the polling place in the intervening years, and one of the best changes has been the influx of fresh blood through the expansion of the student election judge program.

About 1,670 high school students are expected to serve as election judges in Chicago on Tuesday. Each of them has as much legal authority over the proceedings as the older adults working at the polling place.


Cook County Clerk David Orr, who helped change state law to allow for student judges, has his own program for suburban precincts.

If some of the student judges don’t look quite old enough to vote, that might be because they are not required to be of voting age.

The election judge program is open to high school juniors and seniors with a grade point average of at least 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. They also must be U.S. citizens and be able to read, write and speak English.

Although sometimes treated dismissively by the more experienced judges in the early days of the program, the student judges have proven their worth in many ways over the years.

Just as important, the experience of serving as an election judge has created a group of more diligent citizens who are more likely to vote.

Their sheer numbers alone have helped the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners deal with a problem plaguing election jurisdiction nationwide — a shortage of individuals willing to devote the long hours necessary for this vital piece of the election process.

As the voting process has come to rely more on computer technology — both for voting and counting the vote — the students also have shown themselves to be more adept at setting up and operating the equipment than some of the older judges, much like the rest of us turning to our kids for help on the computer.

As an extra bonus, many of the student judges speak a second language and often are able to serve as translators for voters having difficulties.

Mikva Challenge trains the students for their Election Day duties, with extra emphasis on their added responsibility as teenagers to both pull their weight and make sure they are treated as equals by other judges who might try to shunt them aside.

“Part of their training is to go through role-playing where somebody imitates a bossy adult,” said Election Board spokesman Jim Allen. He said students are taught to say, “I’m here to serve just like you are. Let’s get to work.”

In those early years, some of the student judges came away from their Election Day experience with wide-eyed stories of Democratic Machine hijinks and just plain incompetence, much of which has been eliminated by the new equipment and better judge training.

But all the former student judges with whom I spoke Monday gained an appreciation of everything that goes into getting a fair vote and a fair count — a valuable insight when candidates are complaining about a rigged election.

“It’s a very rigorous process. There’s checks and balances,” said James Alford, 25, who served as an election judge twice while at Kenwood Academy and now is finishing up his master’s degree in education at Northern Illinois University.

All the students mentioned to me how important it was to see their neighbors coming out to vote and feeling their energy.

It will be long day Tuesday for election judges. Let them see your positive energy.