A Threat to our Democracy is a Threat to our Environment

IEC staff volunteer to be election judges in the 2020 general election

It’s probably no surprise to you that here at IEC, we believe government is meant to play a primary role in improving the quality of life for all– our communities, plants, animals and ecosystems. As imperfect as it is at the federal, state and municipal levels, and although governments cannot solve all of our problems, it is where we know we can make the most impactful change.

We simply cannot carry out our mission of advancing public policies that create healthy environments in Illinois without fully functional and accessible government. That’s why we fight to make government more accessible, more transparent and to work better for our people and our environment. From environmentally focused town halls, to our popular civics workshops, to our annual scorecard, bridging the divide between Illinoisans and our systems of government is central to our work and our success.

Civic participation is an organizational value at IEC. When we can help people know even just the basics–how to identify their representatives and contact them, or how to register to vote–securing environmental protections becomes more possible.

When our free and fair elections in 2020 were threatened by a global pandemic and voter suppression tactics across the country, our team sprang into action. IEC launched an Election Center to help directly connect Illinoisans with accurate, personalized and educational voting information to make casting their ballot as easy and safe as possible. We recruited election judges from the environmental community to help stem the shortage and we talked openly and frequently about the vulnerable environmental issues at stake in the election.

In fact, Election Day is a paid holiday at IEC, and this year, our organization even compensated staff members who stepped up to help fill the election judge shortage as a way of making that work more accessible to anyone who wanted to participate in preserving the integrity of our elections. 

Election judging is a little known, but incredibly important part of keeping elections accessible and functional. We are so grateful to everyone who has helped judge elections in Illinois over the years, and we’re thrilled that so many new people have been introduced to the role in 2020.

Below, we’ve shared reflections from three members of IEC staff who served as election judges this year as a way of demystifying the process and hopefully, enticing a few readers to judge elections in the future.

Jeff Shelden, Development Director
I was (a small) part of the machinery making the “most important election of our lifetime” happen. It was certainly the most unique election of my lifetime! 

I put my hand up to be an election judge when I heard reports that there was potentially a shortage. I’m not sure that I knew what I was really getting into: three hours of online training, a 4:30 a.m. wake up, and a 15+ hour day.

I saw some voters bringing their children along to witness history, others registering the day of the election because it was too important to not do so, and so many voters being profusely gratuitous to us, the election judges, for facilitating the day– my small effort was well worth it.

I’m proud to have played an additional role in our democracy. Heck, we used my (electric!) car to transport ballots at the end of the evening from our polling place to an election supercenter. That’s kinda neat, right?

Jeff was an election judge in the Wicker Park neighborhood in Chicago, IL.

Tonyisha Harris, Clean Energy Programs Director
This is the second presidential election I’ve been eligible to vote in and the first time I’ve considered being an election judge. With COVID-19 safety concerns, most long-time election judges at a higher risk for serious illness and voter suppression in Black and Brown communities at an all-time high, I decided to apply to be an election judge. 

Like most Americans, I was on edge leading up to election day. Unlike my friends who could manage their anxiety from the comfort of their own home that day, I was up at 3:45 a.m. to report to my assigned precinct and prepare myself to be in the midst of controversy and political turmoil, during a pandemic. As a Black woman, the division created by this presidential election loomed heavy in my mind. I walked into that precinct knowing that every vote for Trump would be a stark reminder of how much this country hates me because I’m Black.

Thankfully, my anxieties were for naught. It turns out, being an election judge was therapeutic and the only time in the week to follow that I didn’t feel panic about an unfavorable outcome. My polling location was the most politically neutral place I could be. From 5 a.m. – 8 p.m. I was working with people of different races, nationalities, genders and ages. We couldn’t speak about politics, so we didn’t. Instead, we engaged in friendly competition with the precinct next door, cracked jokes and endured the long stretches of inactivity in silence or small talk. We shared at least one thing in common, a sole focus on making sure every vote was counted.

In case you were wondering, the precinct next door won our friendly voter turnout competition.

Tonyisha served as an election judge in the Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago, IL. 

Crystal Kern, Finance Director
When I volunteered to be an election judge this year, I wasn’t sure what I’d be in for. To my pleasant surprise, election judging ended up being a great educational opportunity to learn more about our election process. I started Election Day around 4:30 a.m. and settled in for a very long day. Time flew by as a steady stream of voters showed up to cast their ballots in one of the most important elections of my lifetime.

Our precinct had great voter turnout, including many first time voters and plenty of children experiencing the voting process first-hand with their families at an early age. I ended the day with a much stronger knowledge of the voting process and a great sense of accomplishment. I’d certainly recommend election judging to anyone who is able to participate in future elections.

Crystal was an election judge in Mt. Pulaski, Illinois, a small community outside Decatur.

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