July 2020 – For many Edina residents, an Election Day pitstop at their polling precinct takes little longer than a stopover at the local pharmacy, dry cleaner or gas station. We owe this seamless voting experience to the tireless, if largely unsung, efforts of a small cadre of election judges. Hometown Hero Mary Yee is prominent among them.
Yee first moved to Minnesota about two decades ago – and set down deep roots in Edina not long after. She has been a bulwark behind local elections ever since.
“When I first moved to Edina, someone advised me to join the local chapter of the League of Women Voters in order to learn a bit about the political scene in my new home.” Familiar with the civic organization’s work and reputation on the national stage, Yee had no hesitations about doing exactly that.
In hindsight, what happened next is no real surprise. “The League of Women Voters, as you might imagine, is very involved with elections. Lots of members step up to assist, and I joined them.”
Initially, Yee worked behind the scenes as a so-called absentee judge. As the name suggests, this team verifies and tabulates the trickle (or sometimes flood) of ballots that voters submit by mail ahead of Election Day. As a voter herself, Yee has always appreciated the flexibility this option permits the civic process.
Moreover, it is far from the only measure the City Clerk’s office and Election Day staff take to accommodate Edina voters with special needs. In recent election cycles, Yee has rotated to a frontline, day-of judge position in Precinct 10. She can now speak to “all of the measures in place to ensure each and every voter a smooth experience.”
One of 20 precincts distributed across Edina, Precinct 10 corresponds roughly to the Indian Hills and Indian Trails neighborhoods of Edina. It is based at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church – and, by happenstance, diagonal from the larger Church of St. Patrick, which serves as polling place for voters in Precinct 15.
Inevitably, a number of first-time voters make an understandable mistake and find themselves at the wrong polling place. “We’re happy to give them directions, of course. If someone [seems especially] confused, and we’re not super busy, we can often even spare a judge to escort them at least part of the way to St. Patrick’s.”
Federal, state and local laws prescribe a number of more formal services, as well. In most cases, it falls to each precinct’s election judges to see these carried out.
“For example, people with mobility issues can’t always stand in line for long periods,” Yee explained. Consequently, each of Edina’s polling places has curbside voting procedures, allowing a pair of judges to meet these residents in the polling place parking lot. In an election year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, Yee is confident that this service will be more popular than ever during the August primary and November general elections.
Other accessibility measures exist for blind and low-vision residents, as well as for deaf and hard-of-hearing voters. These include special communications protocols, plus a range of specialized, ADA-compliant voting equipment.
None of this comes together without careful forethought. “Election judges have to set everything up beforehand – electronic poll books, mobile hot spots, ballot counter, and of course those voting machines for the visually impaired,” Yee said.
Prior to elections, new and veteran judges alike receive a thorough training on all of the above. “This is a commitment I’ve always been impressed by, because I don’t believe that every jurisdiction has such a rigorous [retraining regimen],” Yee explained. “It’s in human nature to forget stuff, and there are often new rules and procedures in the mix, so I’m grateful for it.”
Despite the long days involved, she is also grateful to interface with and serve her neighbors every Election Day. “I’m no martyr. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities out there, and I probably wouldn’t do this if I didn’t enjoy it. … Making sure every person can vote, and feel comfortable doing so, really gives you a good feeling.”