Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Bethesda, Chevy Chase are short on judges — especially Republicans

Board of Elections also wants independents for Tuesday’s primary

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It may be the only job in Montgomery County that requires a signed agreement to not leave the room ‘‘for any reason, at any time” for 13 hours.

Yet devoted citizens arrive in droves each election year to fill the 4,000 openings for election judges. They work at nearly 250 polling places in the county, putting in 13 or more hours in a day.

But this year, the county is short hundreds of judges in the days approaching Tuesday’s primary election. The Montgomery County Board of Elections tallied a countywide shortage of 334 judges less than a week ago.

Bethesda and Chevy Chase, the most politically active areas in Montgomery County, are two of the hardest hit by a lack of judges in the county this year. Other communities in Montgomery that are few on judges include Gaithersburg, Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

County voting officials said they already have the minimum number of judges required by law. But more judges will ensure that primary voting goes quickly and smoothly.

‘‘The precincts will be open, people can vote,” said Marjorie Roher, county Board of Elections spokeswoman. ‘‘But they may be standing in line longer.”

Elections officials said the 2-to-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans makes it hard to fill all the judges’ seats, especially in downcounty areas where Democrats are highly concentrated. Each polling place must have equal representation of political parties — one Republican, Independent, unaffiliated or other party judge for each Democrat.

‘‘We use a lot of Independents,” said Samuel L. Statland, Board of Elections president. ‘‘They’re like o-type blood; we can use them for any type of transfusion.”

Statland said the need for non-Democrat judges is greatest in the largely liberal downcounty areas.

This year’s pushed-up February primary election is one reason for the lack of downcounty judges. The usual suspects who serve full day polling shifts, election after election, just aren’t around right now, election officials said.

‘‘Traditionally, our judges are on the older side,” Statland said. ‘‘A lot of them will still be in Florida...In November, it won’t be as big of a problem.”

For one would-be Bethesda election judge, location wasn’t a problem. Instead, it was the grueling schedule.

‘‘I was all set to volunteer to be an election judge when I saw that I would have to work from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. or longer,” Richard Fidler of Bethesda wrote in a letter published in The Gazette Jan. 23.

‘‘Even though retired, I still have things to do and cannot possibly spend 13-plus hours straight for anything. Have the Board of Elections call me if they’re willing to have judges work an eight-hour day.”

Then, just as Fidler was reading The Gazette issue where his letter appeared, the board called. They explained that this year, the board added a new position — a ‘‘closer judge” who works during the evening and closes the polling place.

‘‘I figured, well, I guess I ought to put my money where my mouth is,” Fidler said. He went to training on Thursday and came out with a thick three-ring binder and a ‘‘thorough” understanding of the polling process.

The ‘‘closer” job is aimed at people like Fidler, who can’t spare a full day but still want to contribute, officials said.

The board has two full-time judge recruiters.

Election judges are employed by the Montgomery County Board of Elections and paid a stipend for each day they work.

Roher said the county usually recruits judges ‘‘up to the last minute.” Recruiting numbers this year have been roughly the same as in previous years, she said.