Local women see working the polls as civic duty

FOUR POLL WORKERS gathered recently to talk about their work on Election Day. They are (back, left) Sharon Halseth, Janet Sunde, (front) Elaine Struwe and Marcie Spielmann. In chatting, they noted they have worked under three different county auditors.

Election Day, for most, means going to the polls and casting a ballot. For some, though, it means working to ensure that everyone else has an opportunity to vote. At least, that's the way poll worker Janet Sunde sees it.

"Once I worked it, I thought it was my duty to do that so people can get out to vote," she said.

Sunde has been married to an area farmer for 43 years. They have four children and seven grandchildren. She started working on Election Day when her children were young. She explained that each precinct has three workers.

"You have to have a Democrat and you have to have a Republican and the third person can be either one," she explained.

This year, 49 area residents will be working the polls, according to Lake County Auditor Paula Barrick -- 33 at precinct tables, two at information tables, 12 at the Lake County Courthouse counting absentee ballots, and two on the resolution board at the courthouse to deal with ballots that are torn or cannot be read by the counter for some other reason.

Prior to the election, they will receive training where experienced poll workers pose "what if" questions for the auditor in order to help new workers understand the challenges they could face. Among the most common problems is voters failing to return their ballots to the correct precinct.

"I think they think they can put it in anybody's [ballot box]," said Marcie Spielmann, who has worked on Election Day for more than 25 years. She has been married for nearly 57 years and has three children, 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

However, voters sometimes attempt to wear gear promoting candidates when they arrive at their polling place. That is not allowed.

"They can't even be within a hundred feet," said Sunde, explaining those voters will be asked to cover their T-shirts or otherwise hide any promotional gear they're wearing.

"There's a lot we have to keep track of," she added.

Poll workers put in long days. On Election Day, they show up between 6:15-6:30 a.m. to get set up in order to open the doors to voters at 7 a.m.

The polls close at 7 p.m., but workers must then ensure the number of ballots cast matches the number of voters who picked up ballots. Spielmann can recall counting ballots before the counting machines simplified that task.

"Once we had to work in a cubby hole until 2 a.m. to find our mistakes," she said.

Elaine Struwe, who is among the most senior poll workers, chuckles recalling another election which had to be counted by hand. Some of the workers were sent to the Sheriff's Office to count ballots. Among them was a woman whose hair was bleached blonde.

"It turned green because she was so tired," Struwe said.

She has worked the polls for 55 years. Married for 66 years, with three boys, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, she finds the social aspect of the experience appealing.

"I enjoy watching people come in to vote," she said. "You get to see people you don't often get to see."

Just about every poll worker can tell at least one story about her experience. Some are humorous. On one occasion, for example, a voter inadvertently dropped his pants while casting his ballot.

Others demonstrate how much voters rely upon their poll workers, many of whom have worked for decades. Sunde said she always wears a patriotic sweater when she works the polls.

"I've had people say, `If you didn't have that sweater on, I wouldn't know where to go'," she said.

As much as anything, their stories reflect an appreciation for one another.

"Most of the people I started with have passed on," Sunde said. "I've had some fun times with a lot of them."

Sharon Halseth, who has been married for 52 years and has two children and two grandchildren, doesn't remember how long she has been a poll worker. She said that poll workers "visit a lot," especially when it's slow -- which is not uncommon for a local election or primary.

Spielmann talked about bringing goodies to share.

"We've all worked together for a lot of years," she said. "We all share baked goods and candy. I usually make the coffee."

"One year, we pooled our things and had a potluck," Struwe added.

If they have a complaint at all, it's not with the Auditor's Office, which is responsible for state, county and national elections, or with city officials. In fact, for them, they have nothing but praise.

"The people that run it, like Bobbi Janke and Jennifer Eimers from the city, have been wonderful to work with," said Halseth.

Sunde agrees.

"The ladies at the courthouse do an excellent job with their schooling," she said. "They make all of us feel comfortable with working."

Meals are the challenge. Struwe said the Dakota Prairie Playhouse doesn't allow an outside business to come in and take orders from the poll workers. Since they are working 12-hour days, this is a frustration.

However, overall, they find the work to be satisfying and rewarding. Most weren't sure what to expect the first time they agreed to help out.

"I'd never done anything like that before," Spielmann said.

Once they started, though, they wanted to continue.

"I've got the time to do it and I don't mind doing it," Halseth said. "It's kind of a civic duty."

Sunde reiterated the same message, emphasizing the importance of voting.

"I think everybody should get out to vote," she said. "It's a right we have. We don't want to lose it, so I think it's very important to get out to vote."

Barrick said all of the poll workers take great pride in the work that they do on Election Day, ensuring voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots while following the rules in place to ensure a fair election.

"I'm proud of them all," she said.

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