Facing ‘potential crisis,’ Cook County recruits veterans to serve as election judges: ‘We need you’

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough on Tuesday issued a clarion call for military veterans to step back into service as poll workers this election year, as the region faces a "critical shortage" of the election judges they need to make the ballot-casting process run efficiently.

With seven weeks to go before Election Day, Yarbrough said her office has about 4,350 people lined up to work at suburban polling places on Nov. 8, but she needs at least 7,000 "to adequately cover" all of them.

That "potential crisis" is why the county is urging veterans to "step up one more time for democracy, because that’s what’s on the ballot," Yarbrough said at her Loop office.

"Rather than saying, ‘We want you,’ like they did for the military, we’re saying, ‘We need you,’" Yarbrough said. "Our veterans, they’re a trusted and committed group of men and women who have already displayed the courage to serve this country in difficult times. They have the skills, the discipline and the pride to serve and to help restore a level of confidence in our electoral system.

"And they can even make some cash in the process," she added.


Cook County’s roster of election judges has dipped about 40% over the past eight years, according to Yarbrough’s office, from 7,530 in 2014 to 4,500 in the primary earlier this summer.

Election authorities across the U.S. have reported a steep decline in the number of available poll workers over the past few cycles. Yarbrough’s call to action follows the national "Vet the Vote" campaign, launched earlier this summer, that seeks to recruit 100,000 veterans and military family members to help staff polling places nationwide.

More than 130,000 poll workers have dropped out across the country since 2018, according to Vet the Vote, which says about two-thirds of election authorities that year reported trouble finding enough workers.

Experts have said it’s partly due to the overall worker shortage seen in industries across the board throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the fact that most election workers are 61 or older — and thus more susceptible to severe cases of the coronavirus.

Yarbrough pointed to retirement as a factor behind Cook County’s attrition rate, with the average election judge in the Chicago area being between 65 and 70 years old.

But authorities in other states have also reported the poll worker pool has been drained amid increased political polarization and hostility toward election workers, fueled by lies of 2020 election-rigging spread by former President Donald Trump and some of his supporters. Officials haven’t found any legitimate evidence of widespread voter fraud anywhere in the nation.

Yarbrough said that type of extreme vitriol generally hasn’t been directed at Cook County poll workers beyond the usual Election Day complaints.

But officials warned that understaffed polling places will lead to overworked election judges and possibly longer lines.

"If there’s one person in a precinct, we’re putting a heavy weight of democracy on their shoulders," said Ed Michalowski, the county’s deputy clerk of elections.

Workers are especially needed in the north and northwest suburbs, Yarbrough said.

Election judges make $200 for the day, and polling place technicians make $365.

To apply, visit cookcountyclerk.com/work.