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When voters head to polling booths Tuesday for Election Day, an army of election judges will be waiting for them.

Billings has 39 polling places, most of which are staffed by four election judges who will arrive for duty at 6 a.m. on Tuesday. It's a 14-hour day for the judges, many of whom are retirees who have run polling places for a decade or more.

The Heights has six polling places, including Castle Rock Middle School, and Sandstone, Alkali, Beartooth, Bench and Bitterroot elementary schools.

Running an election polling place in a closed elementary school is bittersweet for election judge Sylvia Hoffman.

Hoffman, who runs the polls for precincts 54 and 60 at Beartooth Elementary School which closed in 2001, said election time helps bring community members together. She said it was sad last November when she and her husband, Michael, who is the chief judge at Beartooth, were greeted by empty hallways instead of the curious crowd of youngsters to which they were accustomed.

"People were upset that their school was closed," Sylvia said. "We miss the kids, too. When they were here, they'd stop by and ask about the election and what people were voting for."

Now the Young Families Program has moved into Beartooth School so Sylvia expects to see youngsters there when she heads to work on Tuesday.

In the September primary election, Beartooth School had the highest voter turnout among the six Heights polling places and one of the highest in the city. The 12.89 percent turnout at Beartooth School in September's primary was the eighth-highest voter turnout among the city's 39 polling places.

Hoffman wasn't surprised. She said her corner of the Heights is filled with civic-minded people. Since Beartooth closed in 2001, the neighborhood has pitched in to keep the lawn and weeds cut and the area maintained.

There is a great deal of pride in the school, Sylvia said.

Sylvia and Michael have worked as election judges at Beartooth for the past 15 years.

"We really enjoy it," Sylvia said. "We get a chance to catch up on all the talk with the neighbors."

The Hoffmans have lived on the Heights for 28 years and now enjoy seeing youngsters who grew up in their neighborhood out voting.

Longtime Alkali Creek School judge Orville Holt, who has lived on the Heights since the 1980s, said you can never accurately predict voter turnout until Election Day. In the September primary, Alkali Creek, where precincts 53 and 63 vote, had a 9.83 percent voter turnout.

"When you think it's going to be a little thing, then they really turn out," Holt said.

He's predicting a 15 percent turnout in the November election.

In addition to voting for new City Council members, voters will be asked to decide on a $5.2-million transportation bond. The bond will pay for improvements to Alkali Creek Road and South Billings Boulevard and complete the Arlene Corridor to link Zimmerman Trail with Interstate 90.

Holt, a retired auto mechanic, said he doesn't get too worked up about the election.

"I don't know what excitement there is for sitting down 14 hours," he said. "I never was excited for school, and the election reminds me of school."

Sometimes running the polls involves just passing time until more voters arrive. Since the judges aren't allowed to leave the polling place between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Election Day, they pack their food and plenty of reading material.

Sylvia said she and the other three election judges who work at Beartooth School miss the school lunches they used to get.

"We'll bring our own lunch and a coffee pot," she said. "Each one of us bring magazines, and we'll share them. I usually get a little tired about 2 p.m., but then we'll get another rush a little later and it'll perk you right up."

The busiest times at Alkali Creek and Beartooth tend to be just after the polls open at 7 a.m., again about 5 p.m. and just before the polls close at 8 p.m.

"We always stay open right up until 8 p.m.," Sylvia said. "We'll have several coaches who come in on the run just before we close."

Sylvia said she first became interested in elections when she lived across the street from a district attorney in Denver who was running for re-election. She got involved in his campaign, and she was hooked.

"I love it," she said.

Federal law requires that each polling place have at least three election judges. In Yellowstone County there are usually four or five judges for each polling place, said Yellowstone County election clerk Barbara Cox.

Sometimes political groups hire poll watchers to survey voters. They are not election judges, who all wear name tags identifying them as official judges hired by Yellowstone County.

Jaci Webb may be reached at 657-1359 or at jwebb@billingsgazette.com.

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