July 2020 – Donna Tilsner is no stranger to event coordination. For more than 15 years, she planned and executed a dizzying array of programs as Recreation Supervisor for the City of Edina’s Parks & Recreation Department.
“When I was first hired in 1999, I was in charge of playground programs in the summer, warming houses in the winter, and a bunch of special events,” Tilsner said. Her responsibilities steadily evolved. At various points, she stewarded the community Adopt-A-Park Program, headed a Youth Sports Task Force, and orchestrated a variety of sports camps.
For the final three and a half years of her tenure, Tilsner helmed the Edina Senior Center. In that capacity, she managed a jam-packed catalog of classes, clubs and tours – and the small army of volunteers that make these offerings possible.
Tilsner retired from full-time work in 2016. From time to time, though, she still finds occasion to deploy her versatile event management skills. Election Day is a prime example.
“I have served as an Election Judge for something like 15 years,” she said. “While I was working at City Hall, [former City Clerk] Deb Mangen learned that I’m a resident of this jurisdiction. They were really in need of extra Election Judges at the time, and she put a bug in my ear.” Tilsner worked with her Parks & Recreation supervisor to clear a few days and accommodate this important civic commitment.
Organizers stationed her at Countryside Elementary School, polling place for Edina’s Precinct 6. In the cycles since, she has rotated between Countryside and four other precincts.
“I really enjoy this aspect of it,” Tilsner said. “When you’re a floater, you get to meet a lot of the other repeat election judges. I also enjoy seeing so many of the other residents who I spent a fair amount of time with while in Parks & Recreation, such as Senior Center regulars.”
However, her favorite part of the experience might be greeting and assisting Edina’s youngest voters.
“We election judges get a big kick when a mom or dad comes in with their child and points out that it’s their first time voting. … In some precincts, if we’re not too busy, we’ll applaud and say ‘Way to go!’” Every cycle, one or more parents will ask Tilsner to help snap a photo to commemorate the occasion.
In this same vein, Tilsner loves to be an informal mentor for Student Election Judges. These are 16- and 17-year-old trainees from Edina High School who observe and assist poll work for school credit. It’s a relatively new addition to Edina’s election procedures, Tilsner says, but a welcome one. Students gain hands-on experience with the civic process and customer service; at the same time, their comfort level with technology can be a reassurance to older election judges.
“I recently chatted with a student judge from the last election to see if she’d like to take part this time around. She did, and really wanted to be stationed at the same precinct. She’d grown so bonded with the other judges she’d met. What a great outcome!”
As needed, Tilsner has gone beyond the state-mandated minimum in other ways, as well. “I’ve helped ahead of time with absentee balloting, and with things like getting signage ready for all [the polling places]. Far fewer people are needed for this part, but they do need some.”
By contrast, each of Minnesota’s poll workers – and thousands will be stationed throughout the state – will have a new and essential duty during the Aug. 11 primary and Nov. 3 general elections.
“COVID-19 is a scary thing, but steps are being taken to ensure the safety of judges and voters,” Tilsner said. “We’ll clean surfaces constantly, in line with CDC guidelines. Supplies are being collected for that now. We’ll all wear masks, and we’ll all have gloves. … Plexiglass frames will be positioned in front of the workers and poll books, too.”
Tilsner and her cohorts will attend a pair of mandatory training sessions later this summer, where additional safeguard measures will be shared with election judges.
“We’ll move forward, because we have to. It is just so essential to vote. I myself always think about how women haven’t always had the right, and that alone keeps me from taking [it for] granted.”
Fortunately, easy alternatives exist for Edina residents apprehensive about an in-person precinct visit in this unusually uncertain election year.
“I would strongly encourage anyone and everyone to register for their ballot by mail. You won’t have to stand in line with other people or touch common [surfaces].” Hennepin County offers extra peace of mind, Tilsner says, by providing an individualized barcode for each voter. “You can track your ballot until it is fully processed.”
“Visit the City’s website for the full scoop on early and absentee options.”