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Personal Experiences on Serving as an Election Judge

An interview with Kelsey Dahl & Emory K. Dively by Jaemi Hagen

3/24/2022 4:20:28 PM

Descriptive transcript

[MNCDHH logo appears]

[Title page appears with text, “Serving as an Election Judge: Interview with Kelsey Dahl & Emory K. Dively

Interviewed by Jaemi Hagen on October 1, 2020”]

[Scene changes. Jaemi Hagen appears and begins to sign. Voiceover and captions are present throughout the film.]

>> Jaemi Hagen: Hello. I'm Jaemi Hagen. And I'm a contractor with the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing. My work here includes voter outreach, Census 2020 outreach, preparations for Lobby Day 2021, and doing interviews for the #CanDoAnything campaign. Today I'm here with Kelsey Dahl and Emory Kevin Dively to talk about their election judge experience.

We will start with the first question. Emory and Kelsey, can you share a little bit more information about yourselves, and please share your name, where you're from, and why you feel that voting is important.

[Emory comes onscreen.]

>> Emory K. Dively: Thank you, Jaemi. My name is Emory Kevin Dively. I live in St. Paul, Minnesota. As for why voting is important to me. I don’t want my decisions made by the government or other people. I feel strongly about making decisions for myself. For example, I care where our tax dollars go, what the government does, what our legislature does. I want to make sure that I am involved in the decision-making on what goes around me. So that is how I am involved. I vote. For example, issues related to the Deaf community, I want to make sure that I speak out and impact how decisions are made. If I don't vote, then my opinion won't be involved with making decisions going forward. That’s why I feel strongly about voting.

[Kelsey comes onscreen.]

>> Kelsey Dahl: Hello. My name is Kelsey Dahl. I am from Minnesota, born and raised here. I lived in Golden Valley while growing up and then I moved to Isanti. Really the Post Office recognizes Isanti but the township I live in is really Athens Township. I’ve lived here since 2016, in Isanti County. I feel voting is very important because I want deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing people have more access to things that really impact us. It’s really important to vote. It helps us increase our influence on how the country is run including locally (at home), with everything related to money, civil rights, discrimination, and many other topics. It’s so important to be involved.

[Jame returns onscreen.]

>> Jaemi Hagen: Thank you, Emory and Kelsey, for sharing your experiences and who you are. Now, let's talk about serving as an election judge. What are your duties, tasks, and responsibilities? What does an election judge actually do?

[Kelsey comes onscreen.]

>> Kelsey Dahl: You will see election judges when you go to your polling place. They are lined up and help you register, verify your address. When you go up to an election judge, you're going to give them your name and which party is going to be voted for. They give you your ballot information. After you are finished with voting you put the ballot in the machine. That is our role, we monitor the voting process. At the same time, if anyone needs any help, we are here to help fix any errors such as with the machines. We have a lot of different duties during the elections process.

[Emory comes onscreen.]

>> Emory K. Dively: So for the past six years, I have served as an election judge. My experience is a bit different. Kelsey shared a long list of responsibilities. I specifically did one of those responsibilities and have been what is called a ballot judge. Let me explain what a ballot judge does. 

When people enter the polling place to register, they then receive a blue or yellow card which means they can vote. Then I give them a ballot and show them how to fill it out properly to prevent any errors or mistakes while they are filling it out. Every hour, we typically pause and check how many ballots we've received thus far. Then it is our responsibility to check the machine and count how many ballots the machine has received, to make sure that our numbers and the machine's numbers match. We’re strict and we don't want any errors. We need to make sure that voting is correct. I have the authority to pause the voting in that area and say, “there's a mistake. There's a number off.” and find the mistake. I don’t do this alone. There is a team of us working together. We count everything and compare numbers and make sure everything is right before we can go forward. That protects the integrity of the voting process. It matters because you'd be surprised how many votes are decided or how many elections are decided by just one vote. You think it might not be a big deal, but it does happen often. 

So that's my responsibility, and I thoroughly enjoy it. I have no problems communicating with folks there. We're just working with numbers and counting, and so people are good about communicating with me and I've thoroughly enjoyed it.

[Scene changes to Jaemi.]

>> Jaemi Hagen: Thank you, Kelsey and Emory, for sharing your thoughts. Why did you personally decide to serve as an election judge? What was your motivation?

[Scene changes to Emory.]

>> Emory K. Dively: That's a good question, and for me it's a funny story. It actually just happened by mistake. It was not pre-planned. One day, I went to a nearby gas station. And I was getting gas. There were some people there who were waving at me and I, you know, kind of waved back, a little confused. I didn't know who they were. However, I had sensed that they recognized me because I ran for House Representative in 2006 and 2008 and in 2016 (I ran three times). They recognized me from my campaign. The problem was, I didn't know who they were. 

At first I thought, “how am I going to communicate with them?” Then I thought, “I need to find a way to maintain my communication skills in case I ever decide to run again in the future.” Then I had a great idea, “I should become an election judge.” 

I researched online to learn the process on how to do that. However, one requirement said that you had to speak English, read and write English. I have no problem reading English, but I'm Deaf, and so I don't speak. I then told myself, “you know, I can communicate.” I called and they often would hang up on me. I asked to have interpreters, things like that, they would often hang up on me. So next I tried email. I emailed back and forth with that contact person. They approved me to get training. However, they didn't know that I was Deaf. It was a game I had to play. 

So as we got closer to that election judge training, there was a required two hour training that I had to go through. I emailed and I said I need a sign language interpreter for my election judge training. They immediately called and said “I didn't realize you have a lot of Deaf people in your area.” No, you misunderstood. This request is for me. And they said, “what? No. You cannot apply because you're Deaf.” I said, “oh no, don’t worry.” 

They were a bit upset but that did not stop me or make me give up. I broke through the barriers that they set in front of me. Now I want to open that process for other Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing people to exercise their civil right for access. Next I said, “oh, you know, don’t worry.” I was thinking, you know, be positive. I said, “I have a good friend at the Secretary of State's office. They'd be happy to help you explain how to provide interpreters.” They hung up on me. And I was like okay, we'll see what happens. 

Two weeks before that training, they called back, and said, “oh, yeah, we'll have an interpreter for you.” I was like, finally! The doors are opening! So that's how I got through and I got the training. I just think it's a funny story that just happened. 

I had interpreters there on Election Day. People would often sign to me, "thank you" because I would sign to them, “thank you for turning in your ballot.” So they would sign back to me. I have to thank that big yellow bird on Sesame Street. People grew up as kids watching TV. A lot of folks watched Sesame Street and they did teach some sign language on that show, and so it was neat to have people sign “thank you” to me and give me the thumbs up. 

That's how I became an election judge and it was a wonderful experience. They realized, “oh, having a deaf person really helped us.” We really worked together to make it all happen. So I was honored and it was a wonderful experience.

[Scene changes to Kelsey.]

>> Kelsey Dahl: I became an election judge fairly similar to Emory, in which it was an
accidental situation. In 2021, I was curious what the election process would look like. And so I decided to go ahead and get an interpreter and go to the local Athens township where I live. It is a small town, there's only about 2,000 people that live in this area. I went in and greeted everyone. I seemed to be the youngest person in the room. There were several senior citizens. There were two couples who were in their 40s. Most of them were older than I. I was definitely the youngest in the room. 

Through the discussion, and learning about the event. They explained we needed to have eight election judges within that area, and there were a total of eight of us there, so automatically, I became an election judge. It was completely unexpected. I didn't ask for that or anything. It just happened so that was just the right time. They already knew that I’m Deaf. 

Now though, because of COVID-19, everything has changed. My experience was a little bit different because all of the training, everything had to happen online. All the meetings, emails, texts and et cetera, everything was happening online, which was fine. 

Then on the day of the primary election, just recently, I went in person. I met people, and at the same time, you know, they all live in this town, and it's such a small town, and I didn't even know who everyone was. I met people who actually lived on my street. It was really lovely. There was a lot of cleaning that had to be done, because with eight people, we weren't so busy. We never had to rush or anything. It was just a fairly slow, steady stream of people who came in. We did quite a bit of cleaning, sanitizing surfaces, removing used pens that were thrown away, making sure the ballots went through the machine. 

It was an enjoyable experience. We were able to communicate. The other election judges were texting me and they were curious about American Sign Language and signing. It was really nice to get to know my neighbors in this town where I live. So that’s how it happened and I've really enjoyed it. Soon we're going to be doing the absentee ballots as a temporary job. 

Actually tomorrow, I’m going to start working in person to open the absentee ballots and feeding them into the machine. That's going to be another duty also. I've enjoyed it very much and I'm learning so much through this journey. I've met many people. At the same time, they're learning about me. Being Deaf in my area and what those struggles can look like, especially as a Deaf person living in a rural setting, lots of farms. They didn't realize there were barriers, and we don't have as much access compared to the Twin Cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul have more resources. Our small town, not as much. 

So it's been a very motivating, positive experience and really, people are very understanding and supportive, especially with me being Deaf. Even in 2021 now, even though we're dealing with COVID-19, and it's a different experience, really, everything is still working out for the most part.

[Scene changes to Jaemi.]

>> Jaemi Hagen: Thank you, Kelsey, and Emory, for sharing your experiences and stories. Thank you. Now as deaf or hard of hearing election judges, what was your experience like working with hearing election judges or members of the general public who approached you for help with voting. How was training? How did it all work out for you? You can provide examples of communication barriers or types of accommodations there were provided during your work as an election judge.

[Scene changes to Kelsey.]

>> Kelsey Dahl: My communication strategies included emails that I sent and and let them know that I was Deaf and that I would need an interpreter. They worked everything out very nicely. 

During the recent Election Day, there was no interpreter there because I felt it wasn't really necessary for me to have an interpreter with me because it was not going to be busy. I can communicate with my voice as well as writing and signing. I’m proactive with communication and I figured they could learn how to interact with me, or force them to learn. With our group seated there, we interacted by texting, speaking, and reading lips. When hearing people came in to vote, they would come over and there wasn’t a whole lot of communication that was needed. It was interesting. 

Many people who lived in the country were not familiar with the voting process. There were many new faces. They didn’t know how to vote and made some mistakes. We helped them with the process. The other election judges were helping them fix the errors and kept me aware of what was happening with the communication. I helped with recording incidents by verifying errors and documenting or tracking this. 

There were even some people who came to me and signed a bit like “Hi, how are you?” They would fingerspell a bit or ask me how to sign something. So it was very interactive, but at the same time, it was not busy. You know, I would say we had maybe 50 people at least who came in that day. So it really was not that busy. 

We had opportunities to have side conversations as well. They asked me about the upcoming presidential election if I wanted to have the same duties of cleaning and everything. I'm really open to whatever the work is going to be because it seems that with the election coming, we are going to be busier. Also, we're going to have more seniors who will come and park and wait. We will have to go outside and ask which parties they will be voting for, then give a ballot in the car for them to fill out, then give it to the election judge to bring inside to feed the machine. So we are going to have that system ready. 

At the same time, they do have the option of absentee ballots. If people want to come in, we do have separate areas to be sure that everyone is socially distant. People are not going to accidentally get too close to each other, et cetera. For me, it's not such a challenge because it's a smaller place. 

However, because of COVID-19 and with all of our customers that are coming, you know, we're going to have to work really hard to be socially distanced as well as wearing masks. With the pens, we have to throw them afterward. We're not reusing them. There's quite a bit of cleaning and sanitizing to be done. So that's pretty much what my experience has been so far and what I'm looking forward to. And it's also really nice for me being a deaf person in this town to have this interaction.

[Scene changes to Emory.]

>> Emory K. Dively: Because of COVID, I decided to pause my work as an election judge this year. I want to be more involved in the voting. Once COVID is done, then I will definitely be involved in future years. However, my first experience as an election judge, I can talk about that. 

They told me that they would find volunteers. They asked people to arrive at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning and be done at between 8:00 and 9:00 at night. That's 15 hours of having interpreters. Could you imagine that as an interpreter? I held back because this was their first time working with a Deaf election judge. 

On that day, I showed up to do my duty, the first day of work. No interpreter showed up. I wasn't very surprised. They all looked at me like, “how are we supposed to communicate?” I'm like yep. So I contacted the Election Judge Office, and I said, “there's no interpreter.” They said, “oh, but I tried and tried. I'm so sorry, I tried.” I said, “okay, so can I contact an interpreting agency?” They said “sure, no problem.” So it was off to a rough start but we had no time to negotiate. We needed an interpreter here. In one day, 2,000 people were coming to vote in how many hours. That was a long day. There was almost no break. And we had a lot of people there working. So we had -- tried to have interpreters there to work. And so we called the interpreting agency, very last minute, literally the same day. That's not an ideal situation of course. 

The agency frantically worked to book and send interpreters. There was a lot of turnover as interpreters took shifts but I did have interpreters come that day. It was wonderful. We had two interpreters work with me, alternate and work together all day. I noticed that by having the interpreters there, I made good friends working. I know most election judges are senior citizens and retirees. I know this year it's challenging to find election judges because a lot of those folks need to stay home for health reasons to prevent COVID. That experience was great with having interpreters there and communicating with folks. 

Minnesota really is a great place for providing accommodations, making sure the access is there. They have machines for blind, deafblind can bring an interpreter, et cetera. The point is that election judges can be deaf, deafblind, or hard of hearing. And so the chief, I was able to communicate with them, because we had to talk numbers, right? And ballots and the process. And so it was great. And I know the process now is more electronic, compared to when I was there (with the process mostly on paper). It depends on your location (city or county), of how and which technology will be available. 

However, everything is getting switched to touchscreen machines. And so now because of COVID, they have a lot more rules in place. They have electronic ID verification, they have the glass to prevent folks from getting close to each other. One example is that some deaf people do not know that they do not need to provide government-issued photo ID if they register in advance. So as an election judge, I let them know that they do not need to share their ID. Hearing folks don’t have to, you don’t have to unless this is the first time you are registering. 

It's important to utilize the interpreter if they are there instead of just taking the easy way out and showing your ID. Making sure folks register ahead of time. Through the honor system, they don't have to show their ID. Now we just verify that their name and address matches the list we have. The point is communication is there. It's not perfect of course. All over Minnesota, there's a long way to go. But I believe that here in Minnesota, compared to other states, I feel like we are a leader. 

I know that some counties are trying to save money because they are bringing in interpreters as election judges to perform dual roles. I'm not a fan of that. They need to hire professional interpreters to serve as interpreters. They want interpreters to volunteer as interpreters and election judges, and I don't feel that's right. I want our community members to have the experience serving as election judges. They view it as providing a community service while I perceive it as a more person-centered approach instead. So we need to make sure interpreters are hired for people who are election judges and they are paid as professional interpreters. And I don't want cities to get into that bad habit. And so that's why I try to make sure when they request interpreters. And I remain firm on what I believe in, equal access, hiring professional interpreters, and letting us Deaf community serve as election judges. And we want to make sure that they're there, that our communication goes through the interpreters and that the interpreters are not doing dual roles. It's not perfect. But we need to make sure and keep our stance that it's our right to serve as election judges and not let them make decisions for us. We need to educate them and educate them that we deserve equal access. 

Nevertheless, it was a great experience and I am looking forward to serving again in the future. I'm hoping that more Deaf community members become election judges and that we grow that number. Just like what Kelsey said, building those relationships with our neighbors and with our area, through the interpreters, communicating with interpreters, and we want to build those bonds with our neighbors. I don't want any more of merely smiling and nodding. I want to be able to communicate with people and build those relationships and get to know our neighbors more so when we see them on election day, we can have those good in-depth conversations. So it really has been a great, positive experience for me. This is a presidential year. What Kelsey said, there's going to be a lot of people voting. It's going to be busy. But I'm thrilled to see that. Because I'm thrilled to see a lot of people vote, even during COVID-19. We know things are changing, but we want people to go out and vote.

[Scene changes to Jaemi.]

>> Jaemi Hagen: Thank you, Emory and Kelsey, for sharing your experiences again. So we are now out of time. So we're going to go ahead and wrap up. I want to thank you again for sharing of your stories and your experiences serving as an election judge. And thank you again for your time today as well as volunteering. So if you'd like more information on how to become an election judge and about being involved with local parties, you can find that on the office of Minnesota Secretary of State website at You can also contact the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing, voter outreach team, for any questions for us as well. So please feel free to contact us any time with your questions if you'd like any clarification about voting, ballots, et cetera. Thank you so much for your time. And thank you again, Emory and Kelsey, for sharing your stories. And have a great day, everyone.


The Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing thanks:
Kelsey Dahl & Emory K. Dively for sharing their experiences.
Jaemi Hagen for asking excellent questions.
Patty McCutcheon for voiceover.
Keystone Interpreting Solutions for film production.

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