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“Hectic from the get-go”: How a new polling place chief in Pennsylvania navigated his first election

Jay Schneider knew Election Day would be a hard job. Despite the stress and a few setbacks, he pulled off a smooth experience for voters in Chester County.

A man with white hair and wearing a white sweater with two blue stripes stands in front of a grey, brick building.
John "Jay" Schneider, 76, stands for a portrait at the Caln Township building in Thorndale, PA., on Monday, October 30, 2023. Schneider served as the judge of election for the precinct at this location during the 2023 municipal election. (Hannah Yoon for Votebeat)

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Jay Schneider had a rocky start to his first Election Day as the head of his polling place.

At 6 a.m., he only had two workers to help him set up the voting site at the Caln Township municipal building in central Chester County, which he quickly realized wasn’t enough.

“We just barely had enough time to get set up before the voters were there at 7 o’clock,” he said. “It took longer than we thought.”

Then, a worker scheduled for later in the morning didn’t show up, leaving him down a poll worker he needed to check in voters and pass out ballots.

“It was a little hectic getting people signed in,” Schneider said.

Schneider always knew the day might not be easy. This is his first year overseeing his polling place as a judge of elections, a job he took over after the previous judge stepped down due to illness. As Election Day approached, he spoke to Votebeat and Spotlight PA about his worries, and about the extensive training that he says bolstered his own trust in elections.

His job is important. Pennsylvania’s 9,000 judges of elections do a lot of work behind the scenes that voters may never see, but it’s essential. They set up and break down the polling place, track the numbers of voters, handle voters’ more complicated needs, deal with problems such as missing poll workers, and, perhaps most importantly, submit the vote totals and ballots to the county at the end of the night.

Despite the stressful start on Wednesday, Schneider said things quickly got back on track

When he realized his precinct was short-staffed, a floating worker assigned to assist polling places in the area helped out for a bit, until a volunteer from an eastern precinct in Paoli was sent over to Schneider’s location.

About an hour into Election Day, Schneider said, his team of six got into “the swing of things.”

Ultimately, Schneider led his polling place through a smooth day. His work helped Chester County pull off a relatively uneventful election, an off-year event for voters to choose between candidates in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court race and other judicial races, as well as for Chester County commissioner and sheriff.

Breaks were hard to come by. His wife, Elizabeth, dropped off coffee and donuts in the morning and pizza for lunch, but figuring out which workers could go eat when so as to not leave the precinct unmanned took coordination as voters continued to stream in.

One of the biggest changes Schneider was anticipating in going from poll worker to judge was having to deal with one-off situations referred to as exceptions, such as when a voter needs assistance from a relative to fill out their ballot, or has to cast a provisional ballot if there is a question about their eligibility. It wasn’t long before he had a string of three voters needing to vote provisionally.

“I’ve never done one of them, so the first time through it took a while,” he said. “Then, meantime [someone said] ‘Hey, Jay, this guy doesn’t know where he’s supposed to be voting.’”

At 9:40 p.m., after dropping off the results, ballots, and poll books at the county’s central counting location, Schneider said he was glad the day was over. “It was hectic from the get-go,” he said.

Things were busy and stressful for Schneider, but in perhaps the best affirmation of his efforts, voters and campaign workers outside of the precinct didn’t have any complaints about the location. While some voters were upset about political issues, candidates, or the state of democracy in general, none who spoke with Votebeat and Spotlight PA mentioned problems with the voting site itself.

And there were plenty of voters. By the time voting ended at 8 p.m., Schneider had seen more than 400 of the precinct’s nearly 1,200 registered voters.The constant stream of voters is what most stood out to Schneider. He was anticipating a lower turnout, given that it was a typically sleepy municipal election.

But in-person turnout for his precinct, at roughly 36%, was higher than it was in the 2021 municipal election, though it still fell far short of the 2020 presidential election, when nearly half the voters assigned to the precinct turned out.

“It was more stressful,” Schneider said. “I wasn’t expecting that kind of turnout. That’s the turnout I thought we’d get next time, and by then I’d already know all the stuff.”

During the training for judges that Schneider attended in October, Karen Barsoum, the county’s director of elections, emphasized the importance of working out kinks during this year’s election so that things are well organized for the 2024 presidential election, when turnout is certain to be higher and the pressure far greater.

“This is the election where you are cross training,” Barsoum told judges. “This is where everyone reads the manual. This is where we do everything possible to make sure we are ready for next year.”

Schneider thought about improvements as the day went on, and made a list of suggestions for Barsoum. Poll workers were given manila folders to put ballots into when handing them to voters, but there weren’t enough, he said. And the perforation on the ballots was not deep enough, making it difficult to tear one away from the stack, something Barsoum has already asked the printing company to fix.

Schneider also realized he will definitely need more voting privacy booths. His six booths were sometimes all in use; he predicts needing ten next year.

When judges need backup, the county is ready

Judges like Schneider may feel as if the full weight of running the polling place is on their shoulders, but they do have support.

This year, Chester County used its emergency operations center as a central way to coordinate calls coming from polling stations. Workers there took calls from judges, poll workers, and even voters about problems. Schneider once called in to find out where to redirect a voter who’d arrived at the Caln polling place, but was not on the precinct’s roll.

At another polling place, the outside lighting went out, so workers at the emergency operations center worked with the county election office to deliver temporary lighting equipment, Kevin Beck, Chester County’s community outreach coordinator, said.

The county also expanded its “roamer” program this year by adding extra poll workers who can fill in or deliver needed supplies to polling places. Schneider’s roamer was able to help out, then find him a replacement when his original poll worker didn’t show.

Outside the county election office building, the county was trying out a new system for judges to return voting materials.

Tents with different-colored industrial-size laundry carts were set up along the building’s drop-off lanes. Election department workers in orange vests collected orange bags from judges that contained the USB data drives with vote tallies. Other workers in green jackets placed yellow bags containing poll books in yellow laundry carts, and green bags with filled-out ballots in green carts.

Previously, county facilities workers were running materials from the curb to inside the building, leaving judges concerned over whether they were handing materials to the correct person.

Like Schneider, the county as well is still learning what will need to be changed for next year’s election.

Traffic quickly backed up onto the public road outside the government complex before a second drop-off lane was opened to alleviate the bottleneck. At least two judges drove away without dropping off their USB drives, requiring workers to call them back. Schneider also hit a snag at dropoff: Workers told him the next day they could not find his green ballot bag, though it was eventually located.

Schneider said the biggest change for him going from poll worker to judge of elections was having to be the person dealing with all issues, sometimes simultaneously.

“I can only be in one place at a time,” he said.

Schneider said the work isn’t particularly fun, but he enjoyed helping people cast their vote and being part of the process.

“It’s not like going to a concert, but I’m doing something that I think is helpful and I’m doing something useful for the county,” he said.

The county needs his help, and more. Data collected in a national survey of election administrators shows that recruiting poll workers has been somewhat easier since 2020, but more than half of voting jurisdictions still say it is very or somewhat difficult to find people. Schneider has experienced that firsthand in trying to find more workers himself, and has heard family friends who are poll workers struggling with the same issues.

After his stressful, exhausting day, Votebeat and Spotlight PA asked Schneider if he’d be up for running the polling place for 2024′s high-intensity presidential election, since it is looking likely that the precinct’s elected judge will not be returning to the job next year.

“Oh yeah, definitely,” he said without hesitation.

Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at cwalker@votebeat.org.

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