Election Volunteers

Election Judge Gail Magid hands Ed Opler an “I Voted” sticker last August at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse Community Center. The Teton County Clerk hires 50 to 65 election judges every election to assist with Election Day.

An election judge’s day starts at 6 a.m. and keeps going even after the polls close.

“Elections and working for Teton County Search and Rescue are the only things that have kept me up for 14 hours at a time,” said Keith Benefiel, long-time Wilson resident and election judge.

The duties, which include setting up and breaking down poll sites, greeting, checking in and registering voters and handing out ballots, require dedication and long hours. As such, most are retirees or semiretirees because of the time commitment.

“It’s a lot of responsibility to make the numbers match,” said Diane Benefiel, Keith’s wife. “But everybody should be a poll judge because it’s very educational, and it gives you a lot of confidence in the process. It’s like balancing a cash register at the end of the night — there can be no question.”

In addition to an hourly rate of $12 and gas reimbursement, volunteers are well fed with casseroles, lasagna and more on Election Day.

“We gain five pounds that day,” Keith Benefiel said.

Bobbi Thomasma even brings sweets of her own to pass out to voters.

“It’s very important to have peanut M&Ms so they can take some after they’ve voted,” Thomasma said. “It’s very important for you to be friendly.”

Thomasma, who has lived in Jackson for 40 years, is one of the longest-serving election judges in the county.

“I can’t imagine living here and not contributing to the community,” she said. “Volunteering has really enriched my life — and I don’t like cleaning the house that much.”

Sandra Rodeck is a Jackson native who was born in the old St. John’s Medical Center log hospital. She’s part of three generations, including her mother and daughter, who’ve worked as election judges, and said that played a major role in her becoming an election judge.

“I always took my kids with me to vote,” Rodeck said.

Experts on the process

Diane Benefiel said that voter fraud, something that’s been discussed at the national level, isn’t something to worry about in Jackson, or anywhere else.

“Working for the polls you understand how hard it would be for anybody to pull a fake ballot, especially in small towns,” she said.

For years longtime judges knew all the faces coming in an out of precincts, Benefiel said.

“We literally knew 90 percent of the people who walked in the door. We know who is in the cemetery and who is walking around,” she said. “Now it’s a little more difficult to know everyone because there are lots of young faces.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t conspiracy theorists coming to the polls. In years past partitions read “Tote A Vote,” a slogan one voter read as an endorsement of the Tea Party (“Tote A” spaced differently spells “To Tea”). When that came to the surface volunteers and county officials had to cover the words with tape to prevent any further misconceptions.

But election judges also have fun at the polls. Volunteers recall notable moments like the “one person who does a cartwheel” after casting a ballot, and one time when a “moose family kept people from voting” because the cow and her two calves decided to take a nap on the handicap ramp.

Precincts to voting centers

Rodeck remembered what it was like to volunteer before voting centers became the norm. She’d recognize everyone in her precinct — “you knew your neighbors.”

“It was a little intimidating to go to the regional voting centers at first,” she said. “Because they are far busier and there are lots of people you don’t know. But they train you well, and it’s not a difficult job other than sitting indoors on a nice day for 12 hours. It seemed like it worked better, and it was easier.”

Keith Benefiel noticed the process went smoothly in the fall election.

“I was afraid that by cutting down the sites from 13 to six it would disenfranchise people, but we had record turnouts,” he said.

Thomasma also felt like the process has been “streamlined.”

Why vote?

Poll judges agree — Americans should be more involved in the political process. Rodeck called it “an incredible privilege.”

“We better use it, or we’ll lose it,” she said. “Be informed and speak up when you can. Citizens in this country need to be a little more serious about their citizenship and pay attention to the privileges we have, why we have them and how we can keep them. If you don’t care for the current choices, do something about it.”

“I think it should be a responsibility of citizens to vote,” Diane Benefiel said.

The Benefiels said it’s discouraging to see low turnout. But in the past few years they’ve been excited to see younger voters at the polls.

“We don’t just want old farts like us voting,” Keith Benefiel said.

Thomasma said she hopes young people see voting as “imperative” and that “a man’s vote and a woman’s vote aren’t different — it’s a human vote.”

“I can’t imagine not voicing your opinion,” she added. “If these people are very bright and have a lot to say, make sure to say it at the polls.”

Keith Benefiel said it gives them hope when people make it to the polls.

“You’ll see quadriplegics, people in wheelchairs, people so old they can barely get out of the car,” he said. “What [some] people go through to vote just makes you wonder what’s the matter with everybody else.”

Contact Kylie Mohr at 732-7079, schools@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGschools.

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