ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Cass County sees high interest in election jobs, despite rocky political terrain

Every polling station tries to have a Democrat and a Republican judge. Election workers who aren’t politically motivated are called “purples,” said Murray Nash, Cass County’s election administrator.

A man with glasses resting on his forehead gestures in front of a room full of people.
Cass County Election Administrator Murray Nash talks to election judges, inspectors and clerks on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, at Fargo's Public Safety Building.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum
We are part of The Trust Project.

FARGO — Roughly 3,000 people across North Dakota, including dozens in Cass County, have stepped up to serve as election workers — often thankless jobs that sometimes require navigating a difficult political landscape.

Cass County’s election workers say they’re taking on the job for a multitude of reasons, some political and some just to be a public servant. The starting pay is $15.34 per hour.

For November’s general election, Cass County reported high interest with a surplus of applications to work at the polls. The prerequisites are simple: Election workers must be citizens, must be eligible to vote, must have basic computer skills and must be able to proofread materials for accuracy.

Every polling station tries to have a Democrat and a Republican judge. Election workers who aren’t politically motivated are called “purples,” said Murray Nash, Cass County’s election administrator.

Brandy Madrigga, finance director for Cass County, hands out information to election judges and inspectors of the electoral board on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.jpg
Brandy Madrigga, finance director for Cass County, hands out information to election judges and inspectors on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum

In a room full of about 50 people, nearly all elderly, very few young people attended the mandatory training sessions put on by the Cass County government last week.

ADVERTISEMENT

Some of the Cass County election workers had decades of experience. Others, like Ahmed Shiil, will be a new judge. He applied for the position because as vice chair of the Fargo Human Rights Commission, the issue of people being turned away from the polls came to his attention in June.

At that time, people of color reported being turned away from the West Acres polling station in Fargo after they could not immediately prove their citizenship. The complaints prompted DeAnn Buckhouse, the Cass County election coordinator, to monitor voting at the site.

Shiil also ran for Fargo City Commission in June, and he recalled not feeling comfortable when he went to vote, even though his name was on the ballot.

Ahmed Shiil.jpg
Ahmed Shiil.
Submitted photo

"You’re coming in through that door, so excited to exercise your right to vote, but the lack of training people received and not making everyone feel welcome, that really hurt,” Shiil said. "So I wanted to be more engaged, to make sure everyone is feeling welcomed."

Even though Shiil applied for the position, he said he ended up being appointed by the Democratic-NPL Party to be an election judge, and he did not hear back from the Cass County government about his application.

Being one of two people of color in the room, Shiil said the county needs to do better at hiring people of color to better represent the changing demographics.

Deborah Schneekloth, from Tower City, has been working at the polls for about 12 years, she said. This year, she’s an inspector assigned to the Casselton voting site.

Inspectors are in charge of voting centers, and judges are there to represent their political parties and work in tandem with inspectors against “nefarious activity,” Nash said.

ADVERTISEMENT

“They need the help, and now with early voting, it doesn’t make things any easier,” Schneekloth said.

She described the election week in one word.

“Busy,” Schneekloth said. “You have got to close election polls, make sure everything gets cleaned up. We don’t tally the votes, we just wrap them.”

All of North Dakota’s election workers are taught about how to keep elections protected from "nefarious intent," a threat that Joshua Gallion, the state auditor, said is a low risk across North Dakota.

"Vulnerabilities do exist in every system universally. For the North Dakota election system to be exploited, unprecedented collusion would have to occur," Gallion said in a statement after his office reviewed the state's election process.

Around the country, election workers on the front lines of politics have faced intimidation, death threats and harassment. In Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado and elsewhere, some election workers have left the job because they’re afraid, national news outlets like PBS NewsHour reported .

Here in Cass County, however, election workers The Forum spoke with said they have not experienced anything that negative.

At the election worker training session, Schneekloth sat by a nearly 87-year-old man from Horace, Kenneth Hatlestad. He works as an election judge and has been involved in elections for 34 years.

ADVERTISEMENT

This midterm election, however, is his last, he said.

“It gets to be a long day. Sometimes we’re not done until 10 p.m.,” Hatlestad said.

A few rows back sat Thomas Soadwa, from Fargo. He joined as a clerk in 2020, and this year he was asked to come back as an election judge.

Soadwa, a church pastor, said he applied for the job because, “I try to get involved in the community. We don’t stay within the four walls of our church. If we do that, we can’t help,” Soadwa said.

When the issue of voters proving their citizenship came up during the training session, election workers piped into the conversation, asking questions that took more than 30 minutes to answer.

Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick gave his interpretation of state law saying that election workers are not legally allowed to ask for proof of citizenship, an opinion that was supported by North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley a day later.

Punishment for non-citizens who vote is heavy; they can face up to five years behind bars and a $10,000 fine.

“What person is sitting somewhere saying they’re going to go do this when the consequences are so harsh?" Shiil said. "I think we can do better as a community, and time will tell."

Cass County Election Administrator, Murray Nash, talking to the electoral board on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022 at the City of Fargo Public Safety Building.jpg
Cass County Election Administrator Murray Nash talks to election workers on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022 at Fargo's Public Safety Building. In front of him in the green locked box is voting equipment.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
What to read next
A driver of a Jeep and a driver of a Ford Explorer both suffered serious injuries in the crash with the school bus, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol.
Rynn Willgohs and Zara Crystal, both transgender women who live in Fargo, are working to set up TRANSport, a nonprofit group that Willgohs envisioned to help other trans people in the U.S. emigrate to more hospitable countries.
Sebastian Michael Tackling, 43, was being held at the Cass County Jail on Sunday evening, jail staff said.
The Cass County Sheriff's office reported that across the country, "a large number of incarcerated individuals don’t self report as veteran to law enforcement entities, which means these entities are not able to refer the individuals to services or may not be educated on the services that they rate from their military service."