To most Americans, the governments in their towns and regional areas called counties are the governments they interact with the most. And alongside these local governments are groups of citizens who work on their own to make life better.
In this segment of a multi-part series, VOA's Jeffrey Young looks at how the government of Montgomery County in the eastern U.S. state of Maryland conducts elections with the assistance of citizen volunteers.
It is Election Day in the United States. And in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., citizen volunteers are there, manning the polling places.
On the first Tuesday in November in certain years, people in the United States vote for candidates for government offices.
While there may be candidates for national office – for president or the U.S. House and Senate – and also state offices – such as governor – local governments supervise the voting though an office typically called the Board of Elections.
The board and its staff do not conduct the election without help. Marjorie Rohrer, with the Montgomery County Board of Elections, says it also takes legions of citizen volunteers. "The Board of Elections itself has a very small staff, and we just would not be able to staff the polls. These folks [volunteers] are critical [to conducting elections]."
But these volunteers do not simply show up at polling places. Before Election Day, training classes are held at the Board of Elections offices in the Montgomery County city of Rockville. For instance, verifying that the voter is entitled to cast a ballot at that particular polling place, called a precinct, is crucial.
"And the first thing that you will do,” explains a trainer, “is ask them, 'Do you believe that you are a registered voter in [the state of] Maryland?' Okay, and then if he says 'Yes,' then you will go to the precinct register [of voters], or try to find that voter in the state register. "
Instead of paper ballots put in a box to be counted, votes in Montgomery County are now made on computers with touch-screens. This change has unsettled some voters, who express distrust in the machines.
But election volunteer Andrew Gallant says his training as a poll worker has raised his confidence in this new computer voting system, and, just as importantly, in elections overall. "I think it is very important for citizens to back up the [election] process, to help out, to exert their rights not only to vote but also to support the process. If we don't support the process, then how do we know that it works?"
On Election Day, in the state of Maryland, the voting period is from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. For poll workers, that means dealing with an endless stream of people who must be verified as legitimate voters, handed the plastic card that activates their voting machine, and, at times, helped with technical problems to complete the balloting.
Charles Challstrom is a trainer of volunteers for Montgomery County. He says the presence of these citizen volunteers is important because they give the balloting process greater public legitimacy. "I would like to make sure [by the involvement of these volunteers] that the election experience goes [in a] positive [way], that people have confidence that it is being done right, that it is being done securely, and that it is being done to capture their [the voters'] input to government. It's an important step."
Regardless of which candidates succeed at the ballot box, citizen involvement helps ensure that the election process itself is a winner.