Home » Justice & Peace » What being an election judge taught me

Karen suits up to work the polls

“My 90-year old father would like to come and vote; he hasn’t voted since Eisenhower.” “This is the first time I have been able to vote in this country.” “I just turned 18 today.” These were just some of the amazing humans I had the privilege of meeting while serving as an election judge in Maryland.

I can say, the five (incredibly long) days I spent at the polls were probably the most meaningful I have had in years. The other poll workers came from such fascinating backgrounds: One was a “Quaklic” (Catholic turned Quaker). Another disclosed he suffered from PTSD after years working in warzones with the military. One woman was a Muslim and shared with me about her Hajj experiences.

One worked for the prison system in Maryland and talked to me about the job program in the prisons — people experiencing incarceration made all the protective gear and cleaner used at the polls. Another was in charge of facilities for a local college and shared about their experiences keeping folks safe throughout the pandemic. One young woman was 16 and eager to be involved in politics and vote in the future — for now, she was spending her time making sure others could vote.

We represented a diverse range of political perspectives, as that is required by the Board of Elections, but yet we were working toward this common goal. It gave me great hope for our ability to come together as a nation. These stories are what make the United States of America great.

As someone who has had the privilege to vote by mail my entire life, until I went through training I can’t say I knew anything about spoiled ballots, provisional ballots, curing ballots, or the 118 different kinds of ballots in my county. I didn’t realize that you could vote outside your county (at least in Maryland) but only on the state and federal races (and on a provisional ballot). I didn’t know you could same-day register. I tend to be an optimistic realist, and hold a fair amount of skepticism toward everything, but I was blown away with how accessible my county made the voting process.

It was very clear that the top priority was ensuring everyone had the ability to cast their vote — even if that meant more work for our election office. Since election procedures are largely determined at a state level, I acknowledge not every state enjoys the accessibility I witnessed, but this gave me great hope that there really are models of how to make elections voter-friendly. It also has helped me to sift through a whole lot of the false information circulating in the media post-election. Many of the popular memes about a “mishandled” election demonstrate a complete lack of awareness of how the system works, and the impressive need in our country for better civic education.

As I reflect back now on those five days, it inspires me to keep putting my time where my heart is to ensure we do everything we can to maintain free and fair elections in our country. Many of those I worked alongside at the election are not surrounded by the same privileges I enjoy and could see their lives catastrophically impacted depending on the outcomes.

I am again reminded of one of the lessons I learned living overseas, sometimes the best thing those of us with privilege can do is use that privilege to hold back the forces that would oppress our brothers and sisters that were born without our privileges. They don’t need us to do for them, just work to make sure the systems and structures are not preventing them from doing for themselves. Last week, that meant making sure our election happened.

This experience has renewed my inspiration to wake up every day and say, “Where can I have some influence today?” Over the past few months, there have been many moments where I have felt pretty hopeless, but as long as enough of us keep showing up for justice, doing everything we can — and when we think that is it, doing a little bit more — we will shape our future into a better one than we can currently imagine.

Karen Bortvedt Estrada Karen Bortvedt Estrada
Karen Bortvedt Estrada is the recruitment and relationship manager of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. She served as a Maryknoll lay missioner with the Deaf Development Programme in Cambodia from 2014 to 2017.