What’s It Like to Be an Election Judge or Clerk? Q&A with Gabriella Marshall-Mackin

What’s It Like to Be an Election Judge or Clerk? Q&A with Gabriella Marshall-Mackin

Lifetime Sharpstown resident Gabriella Marshall-Mackin began her path to election judgeship in 2020, the year that Harris County tried drive-thru voting to cope with COVID. Her kids had taken election clerk positions—seasonal temp jobs available to Harris County voters—to make money during college, and Marshall-Mackin decided to join them.

Now, for this year’s March 5 primary, she’s an election judge at Lansdale Community Center in Monsignor Bill Pickard Park.

With more Americans questioning the integrity of elections, it’s important to know who’s responsible for making sure that our county holds a fair, impartial, and honest election. In Houston, that would be Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth, her staff, and thousands of seasonal election clerks and judges—including Marshall-Mackin.

But lately, older election judges have been stepping down, and the county needs younger people to replace them, she says.

Clerk and judge jobs are open to U.S. citizens who are registered voters in Harris County, and bilingual workers are in especially high demand. High school students can start as clerks at age 16 to learn more about how elections work.

Wonder what it’s like? In this interview, Marshall-Mackin speaks about who works in elections, what they do, why fewer people are applying for these jobs, and how new people can apply.

Q: What does an election judge do?

A: Primaries are different animals than the other elections. I'll talk about things that are not a primary first….

The judge’s job is to conduct a completely non-political…environment in which people can vote. The state law requires that you're not allowed to have any kind of campaign signs within 100 feet of the voting location, and you're not allowed to have an electronic device. So you can't call other people and ask them how you should vote….

We always ask [voters] to put their phones away, which is another reason why people get upset with us when they have prepared all their votes on their phone…. You can write it on a piece of paper, you can bring in flyers...but you're not allowed to have anything electronic, and that's state law. So we have to enforce that law at the polling place.

Judges are allowed to have their phones out because we call the election office for a variety of things during the election. So for example, if you have somebody whose voter registration doesn't show up, or it shows that they've moved…you can call the election office.

None of the clerks [or judges are] allowed to wear anything political, discuss anything political, or talk about how you vote or would want to vote. You can vote as a clerk, but you're not allowed to do any kind of political discussion at all while you're working.

Q: What's the difference between a judge and a clerk?

A: There's two types of judges: a primary precinct judge called a PJ, and an alternate judge [AJ]. And most of those are, in theory, from two different parties....

There's a real need for judges because a variety of people have stopped being judges…. A lot of judges were older…retired people because you have to find somebody who has nothing to do the entire day from 5:30 AM to 8:30 PM…and then we'll have to drive the votes to wherever it is they're collecting them. So you don't get home till almost midnight most of the time.

So you have to find someone who has the ability to do that. And that eliminates a lot of people who have small children or don't have childcare. So...a lot of people who do this are retired. And people age, and so over time, a lot of people have decided not to be judges anymore, because they just physically can't do it anymore. That is particularly the case with the Republican Party here in Harris County.

The second issue is that there have been a lot of election law changes... And so another reason why people have decided not to do it anymore is because it's a lot more work. A lot.

The third reason—although I personally have not run across it myself, but I've heard about it from other people—has been the ugly language…that happens with people accusing election clerks of fraud.... I run a very tight ship where I am and we've...never had that issue. But I've heard of that in other states, other counties, etc.... So people don't want to do this job anymore, because they're afraid of personal issues, being attacked politically or on social media.

Q: How did it become more work?

A: For one thing, we didn't have these paper ballots before, and we do now. One of the things that a judge has to do is to physically sign every single ballot....

The other thing that state law requires us to do is to account for every ballot... They usually bring us 1000 pieces of paper ballots, way more than we need....

So if you have 150 pieces of paper that were used, and every once in a while one of them will jam, you have to write down how many spoiled ballots, were they jammed, how many of them smeared and couldn't be read…. And for every one of those, you have to write an explanation as to why that one piece of paper didn't get into the box. Then there's some people that are not familiar with voting with paper, so they leave with it.... They have done their selections at the computer, and they leave with the piece of paper in their hand. And so I have to write a report….

Q: Are you also responsible for counting votes, or just for bringing the ballots to a location for them to be counted?

A: We don't count anything. Computers and whatever do all that….

There’s a ballot box that's looks like a plastic safe…and the ballots drop into that box after they've been voted. There are three locks on it. Both judges have to be present and sign for every lock, that they saw the lock, and you write down the number of each lock...and then the judge physically gets in the car and drives the ballot box...to a county location. Last time, I drove to Tracy Gee Community Center, but sometimes NRG... And you're physically responsible by state law for that stuff until you give it to somebody over there...

So when we close the polling site, when we're done cleaning up and taking everything down, it's usually about 8:00 or 8:30. And then [both judges] or the judge and a clerk get in the car and drive to the place to drop off the ballots. It used to be that the judge could go by themselves. Now they have to go with somebody else.

Q: What do the clerks do? [Question edited for clarity.]

A: The clerk qualifies the person to vote. They ask for the IDs, and they look and see if that person's on the voting records. And if they're not, they call the judge over, and then I...try to figure out why they're not on there. Most of the time, it's because they live in Fort Bend County, and they think they can vote in Harris County... Or they've moved, and their change in address hasn't come through yet. But there's a remedy for everything.

Q: How are primaries different from general elections?

A: This is all when you're not dealing with primaries... In the past, up until this year, they had two separate primaries. So you had a whole staff of Republicans and a whole staff of Democrats. And a lot of times it was in the same location, like Lansdale or a gym. They split the room in half, and you had Republican machines and Democrat machines.

But this year...Harris County does not have enough machines to run it that way. Election law changed, and [now] you have to have more machines than we used to.

So the county clerk, Teneshia Hudspeth...negotiated with both parties to do [a joint primary] because technologically speaking, it's very easy now. You can just tell the computer which ballot you want. "Do you want the Republican ballot or the democratic ballot?" So we don't need to have two separate machines.

So right now, at Lansdale, you're going to have a Republican judge, a Democrat judge, and five Republican clerks and five Democrat clerks. But we're all going to work together because like I said, when we're there, we’re apolitical…

For a primary, you have two PJs [no AJs]…they're both in charge.

It just so happens I'm a Democrat judge, so there will be a Republican judge there too….

AJs and clerks are paid $17 an hour, and PJs are paid $20.

Q: You said less people have been wanting to do it recently. When do you think the decline started to happen?

A: Personally, I've observed it in the last five years.

Q: What is rewarding about being an election judge?

A: I grew up in this neighborhood. I went to St. Francis de Sales when I was a kid, and my parents and I still go. And my kids were in that Lansdale recreation program they have after school... So I got to know a lot of people in the neighborhood...

I love interacting with my neighbors and being able to help them with this, especially because we get a lot of immigrants, new American citizens...and it's cool to be able to teach them, "This is how you vote."

Q: If you're trying to get more people to become election judges, what would you say to them?

A: It's necessary, especially in our polarized current political society, that we have impartial people running elections, who are fair and care what the law says and follow it. Just like on a jury, you would want to have somebody who's fair and impartial....

The clerks are also required…by federal standards to speak certain languages. So you have to have...[some clerks] that speak Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese (whether it's Mandarin or Cantonese)….

I'm on the lookout as we speak for a Chinese-speaking clerk because my Chinese-speaking clerk lady is going to be out of town.

Q: How does someone get chosen to be an election judge or a clerk?

A: You just call up the county telling them you want to at this point. They are just desperate. I joke a little bit, but [usually] what happens is that people work as clerks for two or three elections and feel comfortable doing it, and then they go on to be PJs. We're always looking for clerks and PJs because as soon as you get a good clerk, and they know what they're doing, then all of a sudden, they're a PJ and you have to get a new person to be a clerk.

The Harris County website—you can go on there and apply to be a clerk or judge, any time you want.

Q: I'm guessing for this election, it would be too late for someone to apply?

No, in fact, I can use two or three more clerks right now. The website is harrisvotes.com.

You have to be a registered voter in Harris County. And you have to be a U.S. citizen, obviously.

Q: Is there anything else that you want to add?

I think people assume that if you identify with a certain party, you live and breathe that way. [But when] we're doing the elections, all of that stays at the door. So you can be absolutely sure that everybody in the election has no intent to do anything bad.

We're all doing it because we want to participate in the American process and democracy.... Nobody wants to steal votes.... And those incredibly complicated state laws really make it so you physically couldn't do any of the things that people worry about with election fraud…. As far as I can remember, I’ve never seen a problem where we are.