A Baltimore election judge who worked Tuesday’s primary said a severe staff shortage at his polling site nearly crippled the operation and could have even more dire consequences in November should in-person turnout increase.

The poll worker, Zach Fichtler, said his site at Wolfe Street Academy in Upper Fells Point was short at least six workers, leaving just four first-time election judges to manage several different roles. He wound up filling in as chief judge, he said, when his group realized no one else would show up to lead them.

Poll workers — also known as election judges — are the cogs that keep elections running smoothly and uphold the rules during the voting process. They’re tasked with signing voters in, helping scan ballots and maintaining order and flow during the long day. In a political climate marred by false claims about election fraud and “rigged” races, their work has taken on more urgency. Across the country, poll workers have been threatened, intimidated and berated on the job.

In June, the nonpartisan organization Baltimore Votes said only about 900 people had signed up and completed election judge training for the July election. There are nearly 300 polling locations citywide; Baltimore Votes said nearly 2,000 judges are typically required for the sites to function.

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Armstead Jones, election director of the Baltimore City Board of Elections, told The Baltimore Banner prior to the election that the city could use “hundreds more workers to be at a comfort level.” Last week, he declined to specify a number but confirmed there was a worker shortage Tuesday.

He said any problems experienced during the day likely stemmed from workers’ inexperience, not the judge shortfall. He said in-person turnout wasn’t high enough to cause overextension.

“They may have felt overwhelmed because maybe they didn’t know what the hell they were doing,” said Jones, an appointee of a local board assembled by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. He said there was a significant crop of new judges this year and some may have felt out of place.

Little national research has been done on the demographics and motivations of U.S. poll workers, but researchers have found that about half of all U.S. jurisdictions have had difficulty staffing polling sites over the last decade with recruitment problems especially great in urban areas and in areas with high voter registration.

The Election Infrastructure Initiative — a coalition that includes advocacy organizations — also stressed the need for more investment and modernization in U.S. elections. It estimated the costs of such an undertaking at $53 billion over 10 years, with Maryland requiring more than $1 billion alone for items such as cybersecurity improvements, voting machine replacement and administration and staffing.

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“Funding can help with staffing and training to manage and maintain our election systems just as election jurisdictions grapple with a wave of potential retirements and loss of institutional knowledge,” according to the Election Infrastructure Initiative’s “50 States of Need” report.

As the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Election Lab report put it: spending on elections now trends near the bottom of which public services get funded, along with parking facilities maintenance.

Fichtler, an electrician, said he had undergone three hours’ worth of training in April and a brief refresher last week — not enough to feel prepared to take the wheel on Election Day. The refresher session “glossed over” how to open and close a site, he said, the most rigorous and complex parts of the day. About 400 people voted at the site from open to close, he estimated.

Fichtler said he signed up to work as a poll worker to combat rampant misinformation swirling around election integrity. As a chief judge, he expects to receive $275 for his service; other judges receive $200 (Jones said the value of the stipends increased this year from $165 for judges and $225 for chief judges to counteract staffing problems “and because they deserved a raise”).

Fichtler said he didn’t volunteer for the money: “In talking to people who believe fraud and corruption are a problem, I can tell them that I was there and here’s how it works and what we actually do,” Fichtler said. “They can see and hear it from someone they trust.”

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But he’s not sure he’ll volunteer again in November given his experience last week.

“With all the people who went through the ringer yesterday, if all of them say ‘Screw it, I’m not going to through this again,’ that’s where the entire process is going to collapse,” Fichtler said. “Not because of fraud concerns, but because the wheels can’t turn.”

Fichtler said he and his three colleagues — all of them registered Democrats, although each site is supposed to have a Democratic and a Republican judge, according to the city board of election’s website — scrambled to plug the holes and wound up opening the Southeast Baltimore site an hour behind schedule.

“It was really just kind of constantly doing what we needed to do with not enough people to do it and not enough people to really take breaks,” he said. “We didn’t know how it was supposed to flow because none of us had ever done it before.”

Fichtler said he received a few complaints during the day from voters about insufficient signage and a lack of seating for people with disabilities. He encouraged them to call the board of elections: “Great, we need the help,” he said he told them.

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Fichtler said he asked the board for guidance about the lack of registered Republicans working at the site and was told to try to recruit a Republican voter. None who voted at the site were interested, he said.

Jones said it can be difficult to recruit Republican judges in deep-blue Baltimore, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 9 to 1 margin. He said sites are compliant as long as one of the judges working is Republican.

City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who represents Baltimore’s 14th District, introduced a resolution Monday that invites Jones to speak before the City Council to “detail the cause of voting irregularities” during the election. She said some constituents in her district received incorrect mailed ballots, while others had incorrect voter registration cards and had to use provisional ballots when their voting eligibility was in question.

She also said there were several instances of disorganization that caused concern, namely misplaced flash drives that delayed the vote counting in a dozen precincts and at least two constituents who wound up as chief judges that day despite not having the proper training.

“I appreciate there was a shortage and am grateful for those who stepped up,” said Ramos, a Democrat. “We need to do a better job of recruiting people, and I think we can do that.”

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Meanwhile, some city residents said their attempts to serve as poll workers were ignored.

In June, Jaclyn Paul received an email from a friend urging her to sign up to be an election judge in Baltimore City. A Medfield resident who comes from a family of poll workers, Paul considered herself up for the task to remedy what her friend described as a poll worker shortage.

She filled out an online interest form and received a confirmation email explaining she would hear back soon. But the follow-up never came, Paul said.

“With all this talk about people being disenfranchised and not being able to vote, it’s important to me that people have the opportunity to vote,” said Paul, a writer and author and president of the Medfield Community Association. “It’s worrisome ... if they can’t handle offers of assistance coming in.”

Amani Surges Martorella, of Hampden, also said her attempts to work the polls went unanswered. A clinical social worker, she said she wanted to contribute to spare much older adults of the responsibility.

“I don’t understand why this should be so hard,” she said. “At this point it’s harder to justify taking the day off of work if I don’t know if there’s even anybody answering the phone.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Adam Willis contributed to this article.

hallie.miller@thebaltimorebanner.com

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Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city's communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization's medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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