Jewish poll worker can’t ask St. Charles residents to don masks but she still wants them to be able to vote safely

Marianne McKenna will serve as a Democratic election judge for St. Charles County on Nov. 3. Photo: Bill Motchan

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Marianne McKenna appreciates how St. Charles over the last year has made a Jewish Democrat such as herself feel like she belongs.

First she found out she was not the only local Jew when she attended the city’s first community menorah lighting in December in its historic district.

“There were so many people there— the rabbi and the mayor and someone dressed as a dreidel and firefighters up in a basket, throwing gelt — and it was just the neatest thing I have seen in a long time,” said McKenna, who lived in other parts of St. Louis city and county before moving to St. Charles after her husband died six years ago.

Then in June, she reached out to the St. Charles County Election Authority to become a Democratic election judge.

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“After the past four years, a lot of people I guess haven’t felt like they needed to do something. I have, and I felt like I needed to do something to make the world right,” she said.

Contrary to the concerns that some Democrats might have about the upcoming election in St. Charles, a red county where the election authority recently sparked headlines for a controversial email about wearing masks, McKenna said the authority is “so determined for every single person in St. Charles County to have the ability to cast a vote, and I have so much respect for that.”

McKenna now regularly attends Jewish events at the Chabad Jewish Center of St. Charles County, which organized the menorah lighting.

“It’s been almost overwhelming. There are 6,000 Jews in St. Charles,” McKenna said, using an estimate based on the 2014 St. Louis Jewish Community Study.  “Just to know that in any setting I am not the only Jewish person there necessarily, that we have a team.”

After signing up to be an election judge, McKenna, who works in the operations department of the St. Charles Convention Center, participated in a three-hour training session and then worked at the August primary election. During the session, she and others learned the social distancing guidelines and expectations around masks. Unlike St. Louis County, St. Charles County never issued a mask mandate despite its high number of COVID-19 cases, with the county executive saying it would be “counterproductive” to issue such a requirement. As a result, masks are not required in public places in St. Charles County.

“We can’t really force them to do anything, but we do provide masks, and we just have to hope that people act right,” said McKenna, who wishes there were a mandate and will offer masks on Election Day.

In September, the election authority sent an email to poll workers, instructing them to “act surprised” if voters confronted them about not wearing masks, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The newspaper, in an editorial, described it as one of the most “cynical instructions ever issued by a public body.”

But the director of the authority said the email was misinterpreted and that the aim was for poll workers, if they were asked by a voter, to “put the mask on without arguing and then move on.”

McKenna trusts that the leaders of the authority “just wanted to avoid conflict.” And she is confident that the authority will ensure that people are allowed to vote safely.

“I wish every county had people so dedicated to the election process,” she said. “It’s meaningful and I respect that.”

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