Helen Robins hasn't missed an election in more than 30 years. Since 1970, she's worked as a polling judge for Ada County's 21st precinct, manning the polls making sure people follow the rules. She works 14-hour days and takes home $150 for her efforts, and says she's seen a lot change in that time. She'll be back at work May 23, when Idaho holds its statewide primary elections for a variety of public offices.
BW: What's the biggest thing that's changed about the voting process in the last 36 years?
HR: When I first started, you counted ballots at the polls. In Idaho, at least in Ada County, we use votomatics [voting machines] and the ballots are all processed through a machine at the county courthouse. Basically, it's the technology that's changed. It's so much better and more sophisticated of an operation. Other than that, it's about the same process of voters coming in to vote.
What's the primary election you remember as having the most voter turnout and why?
Really, you get a big turnout any time you have an open congressional seat, like we have now [in Congressional District One, which includes Ada County]. I can't remember any primary that we had exceptionally overwhelming turnout, but it would be something like a governor's contested race. I don't remember a primary that's been terribly contested recently.
From your experience, can you say if more people file to run in primary elections?
Boy, that's a hard question. I would say there are probably more, just maybe not many more. I'm trying to think back, but there are so many people in the congressional primary this year, and that's what I'm basing it on.
What about people at the polls? Are you seeing more people voting during primary elections?
People are becoming more aware of the election process, so I'd say that there are more people coming to vote. Typically, older people vote in a bigger percentage, but I would say in recent years, more of the younger people are coming to the polls. I think they're more aware of what's going on than we used to be. It's also easier to find information. You can go to Web sites and make yourself better informed if you desire.
Do people get confused with anything about the primary election process?
If there is any misconception, it's about party lines. In Idaho, you don't have to declare a political party. But when voting in the primary, you cannot switch between the two; you can't vote for one Republican and one Democrat. You have to vote one specific party or your ballot will be voided. As poll workers, we try to let people know you can only vote for candidates of one party, and it's on the ballot book they're given. So if they don't know, it's that they can't read and they don't listen. Since we don't count the ballots, I can't say how many people don't follow the rules.
What influences election turnout during primaries, which usually aren't big draws?
Well, it makes a lot of difference depending on what neighborhood you're in. Definitely weather affects turnout. One big thing is our primaries sometimes land on the day after Memorial Day, and I think some people might forget if it's the day after a holiday. But it doesn't happen this year, so that's OK.
If you could change anything about the way elections are handled, what would it be?
I would probably make people show identification; that isn't necessary now in Idaho. To register, you have to show ID, but not to vote. That might be something I would suggest be changed. People have such an odd opinion about invading a personal property, but I don't see where that would be an invasion.