It's ten minutes past nine on the morning of November 9th as I start to write this post, and the bitterly-fought and divisive election of 2016 is now history, even as its repercussions are not. I'll have more to say about that later. For now, I'd like to tell you about my experiences yesterday, when I served for the first time as a sworn election officer working at my local polling place. I think it's instructive.
It all began a few months back when I saw a notice at the local library, seeking volunteers to work as "officers of election" in support of the November election. I decided to sign on, which required me to present myself at the county Office of Elections, prove my identity and citizenship, fill out an application, and swear an oath*. A few weeks later, I was accepted and scheduled for training. This training involved identifying allowable forms of photo identification, setting up, operating, and closing down the various machines used in the electoral process, and general operation of a polling place. I learned that we would serve at our precinct under the direction of a Chief and a Deputy Chief Officer of Election (representing different parties), and about how to deal with the partisan "poll-watchers" who were expected to be watching every move we made in search of the least hint of any fraud or irregularity**.
Between the training and election day, we were encouraged to visit the county election site on YouTube frequently to keep abreast of any changes in procedures, and to review what we'd learned so as to be ready to go on election day. We each received a formal notice of assignment to a particular precinct, although we had to agree to work at another precinct should that be required, and each of us got a phone call from our Chief a few days ahead of time to verify our continued availability and confirm the time at which we were asked to report - no later than 4:50 AM - to finalize setup and get ready to open the polls at 6:00 AM.
Election Day ...
I got up at 3:45 and left the house at 4:15 for the half-hour walk to my assigned polling station at the local elementary school. I arrived at 4:45, and several other officials were already there, including our Chief and her Deputy. A number of people (not including me) had been asked to come in on the previous day to set up the polling place (arrange tables and chairs, put up official signs, etc), and so the room was pretty much ready for us to make the final arrangements.
We carefully unpacked, set up, turned on, and updated the various electronic devices used for the election. For checking in registered voters, we used for the first time "Poll Pads" - iPads which were loaded with scanning software and the full database of registered voters. Voters marked preprinted, optically-scannable ballots which were read by special scanning/recording devices which maintained a paper record of the results and securely stored the original ballots ... we were responsible for setting up and turning on the scanners, and for verifying that the counts were all set to zero. There was also a special "Express Vote" machine available for voters with hearing and visual impairments ... we set up and verified this machine as well.
We had completed all our preparations by 5:55, and the Chief assembled us all to take a final oath of service. At exactly 6:00 AM we opened the doors ... and it was off to the races.
The first person a voter met on arrival was a "greeter," who directed him (or her) to the right voting precinct ... we had two voting precincts (Saratoga and Alban) both using the local elementary school, and the greeters tried as much as possible to make sure that voters went initially to the correct precinct.
Voters then waited in line at their assigned precinct, where they met the registry checkers. This was my first assignment for the day. Our job was to ask each voter for their photo ID, check their image against the picture***, verify that the ID was current, and then check their names against our Poll Pads. The Poll Pads were networked to the Chief's station, and each one contained the full database of registered Fairfax County voters, updated that morning with the latest record from the Office of Elections. The best form of ID from our perspective was a Virginia driver's license or a DMV-issued photo ID (a so-called "walker's license"), because they a scannable bar code that we could read with the Poll Pad's camera. The Pad used the scanned bar code to call up the voter's name from the database - we asked them to confirm name and address, repeated the information for the poll-watcher, and then gave the properly-identified voter a purple ballot card, which he or she would exchange for a ballot at the next station.
The use of the Poll Pads tremendously speeded up the in-processing of the voters, compared to the old system of checking each person against a printed registry book. They updated the database immediately to record each person as they checked in (preventing people from voting in multiple locations), showed us which voters had already been issued absentee ballots†, and allowed us to steer a voter who had come to the wrong place to the correct precinct. The downside was that it allowed us to check in voters so quickly that we often ended up with traffic jams as checked-in voters backed up at the table where they were issued their ballots.
But I'm getting ahead of myself ...
Once we checked in each voter and gave them their ballot card, the person went to the next station, where they exchanged the card for an official ballot. When they had their ballot, another election officer directed them to an available privacy desk (we had about 30) to fill them out.
Once the voter had marked his or her ballot, they brought it to one of the two optical scanning units to be tabulated. One election officer manned each scanner (this was my second assignment for the day), and our job was to make sure each voter inserted the ballot properly into the scanner and wait until it had been scanned and accepted. We were not allowed to touch or look at anyone's ballot††, ... just to make sure the voter inserted it and that it scanned properly. When we'd verified that the ballot had properly scanned, we presented the voter with an "I Voted!" sticker (and a "Future Voter" sticker for any accompanying children) and guided them out of the polling area.
Of note about the scanners: occasionally, the scanner would reject a ballot. There were several typical reasons for this: the voter didn't fill in the appropriate bubbles completely; the voter accidentally voted for too many candidates; the voter failed to make a selection for a particular race; or the voter made extraneous marks on the ballot. If the ballot was rejected by the scanner, the voter was offered the opportunity to either submit the ballot "as is"††† or exchange it for a new blank ballot§ to start over.
After the initial surge of voters at the opening (which didn't finally clear out until after 8:00 AM, in spite of how quickly we were able to get people checked in and processed), we seldom had a quiet period all day - the flow of voters was quite steady, and we were almost never without something to do ... I finally got to eat my sandwich for lunch at about 2:00 PM.
The polls closed at 7:00 PM, and we moved on to our closing assignments. It's important to note that every action involving any of the electronic devices required a minimum of two (three, when available) persons to observe and confirm each action, and the partisan poll-watchers were invited to observe every step of every action. I worked with two other election officers to shut down and secure the Express Voting machine; other teams secured the Poll Pads and the optical scanners.
The scanners, as the heart of the voting process, received special attention. Several copies of the paper record of scanned votes were printed, and the internal boxes of stored, scanned ballots were locked and sealed.
The Chief Officer and her Deputy worked with a group of other officers to document the "Summary of Results" (or "SOR"), which was the official record of the results of the election for our precinct. Every count was verified by at least two individuals, and every entry on the final report was similarly verified. All the final paperwork, all the original seals from the machines, and all the seal numbers from the machines at the end of the day were recorded and verified. Once all this had been done, the official results were phoned in to the Office of Elections and were posted on the door of the polling place ... and we were done, shortly after 9:00 PM.
Within the polling station, everyone operated with the utmost of nonpartisan professionalism. While we were a mix of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, there was no rancor or discussion of the candidates, even when voters tried to draw us into debate. We took our responsibilities very seriously.
All of the election officers tried to make the voting experience a good one for all voters. At the adjoining Alban precinct, the registry checkers let out a loud cheer and round of applause for every new, first-time voter. In the Saratoga precinct, we didn't do that, but we were unfailingly pleasant, professional, and cheerful with every voter.
Almost all voters were cheerful and upbeat, even those who waited in the long, very cold line early in the morning. While there were some who were sour and nasty, they were in a very small minority.
We received no pushback from anyone on the issue of voter identification. Everyone accepted the need to positively identify voters, and we got nothing but support from voters who had appeared at the wrong precinct and had to be referred elsewhere, or whose identification had to be verified because it didn't match the registration database (wrong address, name spelling didn't match, etc). It was a very heartening display of civic responsibility and community in a particularly rancorous campaign season.
We got a lot of compliments on the way we checked people in and kept the long lines moving. The reaction to the Poll Pads was very positive. Some voters wanted to know how we could prove that their vote had been counted ... we stressed that a paper trail was being kept, and that every scanned ballot was being saved to be recounted if necessary. Nevertheless, a few people seemed to firmly believe the idea that the election had somehow been "rigged," and that their vote would not count. Nothing we could say changed those minds.
The most unpleasant event of the day occurred when a voter came in and was very loudly angry about the Democratic party representatives outside the polling place who were distributing Democratic sample ballots. He was furious, demanding to know why we didn't have any Republican party representatives out doing the same thing. We had to remind him that we, as election officers, were officially impartial and had absolutely nothing to do with partisan activity beyond the 200-foot boundary around the polling place, and that if he was so upset, he needed to contact his local party representatives. As it turned out, the Republicans did eventually turn out, about an hour after the Democrats did.
It was, as I said before, a very long day. While I am not happy with the result, I'll try to remain positive and hope for the best. And I will definitely volunteer to do this again. The best way to oppose the accusations against the fairness and impartiality of our election system is to work within it and see how it works from the inside ... to see how many checks and verifications of every single thing are required to prevent cheating or fraud.
Today, I'm very tired, but glad to have done my part to support this most valuable of our freedoms - the freedom to choose our elected leaders. While we may not always like the results, we do have the opportunity and the responsibility to vote and to take part in the machinery of government.
Have a good day. More thoughts coming.
* "I, _______________________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent upon me as an Officer of Election of Fairfax County according to the best of my ability (so help me God)."
** Ignore them, unless they attempted to interfere with our work, in which case we were to refer them to the Chief or Deputy Chief. As it happened, we had only one poll-watcher at my precinct, she was registered as a Democrat, and she was very professional and personable.
*** We were taught that the photo had to "substantially resemble" the person ... after all, whose driver's license photo actually looks like them?
† We had several people who had been issued absentee ballots in expectation of travel or for other reasons, but who did not use them ... these people were allowed to vote in person if they turned in their unopened absentee ballot package for accounting.
†† There was a provision for us to provide assistance to a voter (typically one who was somehow disabled) who requested it, but this was very tightly controlled and required multiple levels of approval and documentation before we could do anything.
††† This was only available for the situation in which a voter did not mark a selection for a particular race ... we had several voters who acknowledged that they did not want to make a choice, and submitted their ballots as marked.
§ The original, erroneously-marked ballot was marked "spoiled" and kept for separate accounting at the end of the day.