Things I learned from working a primary election

After more than 15 years of writing about voting-machine security, I finally got some hands-on experience in the field–by waking up at 4 a.m. and working a 16-hour day.

I’d had the idea in my head for a while, thanks to frequent reminders from such election-security experts as Georgetown Law’s Matt Blaze that the best way to learn how elections work is to work one yourself. And I finally realized in January that I’d be in town for the March 3 Democratic primary and, as a self-employed type, could take the whole day off.

I applied at Arlington’s site by filling out a short form, and about two hours later got a confirmation of my appointment as an election officer. (My wife works for Arlington’s Department of Technology Services but has no role in election administration.) A training class Feb. 11 outlined the basics of the work and sent me home with a thick binder of documentation–yes, I actually read it–and on March 3, I woke up two minutes before my 4 a.m. alarm.

After packing myself a lunch and snacks, as if I were going to grade school, and powering through some cereal, I arrived at my assigned polling place just before the instructed start time of 5 a.m. I left a little before 9 p.m. Here are the big things I learned over those 16 hours:

  • Yes, having people fill out paper ballots and scan them in works. I saw 500-plus voters do that while I tended the scanner in the morning, and none had the machine reject their ballot. There was confusion over which way to insert that ballot, but the scanner accommodated that by reading them whether they were inserted upside down, right-side up, forwards or backwards. (I wish more machines were that tolerant of human variances in input.) And at the end of the day, we had a box full of ballots that will be kept for a year.
  • The technology overall appeared to be of higher quality than the grotesquely insecure, Windows-based Winvote touchscreen machines on which I voted for too many years. This scanner was an offline model running a build of Linux, while the poll-book apps ran on a set of iPads.
  • The “vote fraud” rationale for imposing photo ID requirements is not only fraudulent, but photo IDs themselves are overrated. The state allows a really broad selection of public- and private-sector IDs—unavoidable unless you want to make it obvious that you’re restricting the franchise to older and wealthier voters—and our instructions required us to be liberal in accepting those. I didn’t see or hear of anybody getting rejected for an ID mismatch. (The one surprise was how many people showed up with passports; I quickly grew to appreciate their larger color photos over the tiny black-and-white thumbnails on drivers’ licenses.)
  • Asking people to state their name and address, then matching that against voter-registration records, does work. That also happens to be how voter check-in used to work in Virginia before Republicans in the General Assembly shoved through the photo-ID requirement that’s now been reversed by the new Democratic majority in Richmond.
  • You know who really loves high turnout? Election officers who otherwise have some pretty dull hours in mid-morning and then mid-afternoon. At one point, the person in charge of the ballot scanner busied himself by arranging stickers into a bitmapped outline of Virginia, then added a layer of stickers on top of that to represent I-95 and I-66. Fortunately, precinct 44 blew away past primary-turnout records with a total of 1,046 in-person votes.
  • The attention to detail I saw was almost liturgical. Every hour, the precinct chief did a count of voters checked in and votes cast to ensure the numbers matched; every record was done in at least duplicate; every piece of paper was signed by at least two election officers, and the overall SOR (statement of results) bore the signatures of all eight of us. We closed out the night by putting documents and records in specified, numbered envelopes, each locked with a numbered zip-tie lock; each number was recorded on a piece of paper on the outside of each envelope that was itself signed by two election officers.
  • Serving as an election officer isn’t physically demanding work, but it does make for a long day. We did have coffee delivered, but it didn’t arrive until 9 a.m., and nobody had time for dinner during the rush to close out things after the polls closed.
  • It’s also not the most lucrative work ever. My paycheck arrived Friday: $175, amounting to an hourly wage of $10.94. The value of seeing the attention paid to make democracy work and then watching more than a thousand people show up to exercise their rights: priceless.

Updated 3/23/2020 to fix some formatting glitches.

This weak excuse for a winter

All this month, Facebook has been reminding me of the epic blizzards that hit D.C. a decade ago–as if I needed more reasons to feel cranky about Facebook.

Where February of 2010 saw D.C. get whomped with almost 30 inches of snow in a week, this miserable excuse for a winter has yet to grace my city with an inch of snow total.

I have yet to ski anywhere this season. And with the eroding accumulations at the local ski areas, it looks like I’m either going to have to fly somewhere or hope for a March blizzard to avoid breaking a streak of skiing somewhere and somehow every winter–downhill or cross-country–that dates to 1997.

And what if next year’s winter is just as warm as this one’s? And for every year after? Global warming sucks… and being deprived of local snow sports is one of the least painful elements of this problem we continue to cook up.

Yes, having a Washington winter act more like what passes for that season in the Bay Area has offered some advantages. I’ve biked a lot more than I would expect, including a great ride through Rock Creek Park last Sunday (as seen in the photo above). Our yard is already waking up to spring, with the first lilies already popping out of the ground and arugula and parsley still growing since last fall.

But I’d trade all that for a freeze followed by low clouds dumping six inches of snow all around. Or even four: My cross-country skis are already trashed, so all I really want is an excuse to air them out instead of them collecting more dust in the basement.

A better time of year to bikeshare

The arrival of fall around here means three things to me: pears replacing peaches at farmers’ markets, a chance to grow a second crop of arugula, and a notable increase in my Capital Bikeshare mileage.

Between the temperature dropping into the 50s and summer’s stagnant humidity finally lifting, I no longer have to worry about rolling up to my destination glistening dripping with sweat. Meanwhile, the fall colors on the trees has the city looking pretty great, even if the leaves don’t get as vibrant as in New England. So why not bike instead of taking Metro?

Over the last few years, the growing network of bike lanes and the continued expansion of Capital Bikeshare’s network has made this an easier proposition. And when I can dock a bike to end a rental and then take the same bike out–“dock surfing“–I can reach just about anyplace downtown or on Capitol Hill without paying any extra charges. You can’t say that for those increasingly expensive e-scooters.

(My usual stations to daisy-chain free rentals: 24th and Pennsylvania NW if I’m riding to downtown, Lincoln Memorial if I’m headed to the Hill.)

So I’m seeing more of Washington than usual, I’m getting some moderate exercise, and I’m saving money–I’ve already recouped almost all of the $85 annual fee in saved Metro fares. What’s not to like?

Well, the chance that some inattentive driver will hit me. I got a reminder of that risk two weeks ago when one driver merged abruptly into a bike lane ahead of my wife, leading to her stopping abruptly, crashing, and breaking her collarbone. Yes, again. Could you all please try harder to share the road?

A World Series title comes home to Washington

World Series celebrations were things for other cities.

That’s what I knew for a fact during the long twilight years when the city I chose didn’t have a baseball team. The next 14 years–first salted with 100-loss futility, then scarred with first-round postseason exits–didn’t shake my fear that I’d live my entire life while watching other places’ players jump on each other on an infield in October.

But that just happened. For my city. In my lifetime.

The Washington Nationals beat the Houston Astros 6-2 in a game 7 that wasn’t supposed to happen after… the team started the season with a 19-31 record… our bullpen was revealed to be built partially out of balsa wood… we had to claw our way into the postseason via a come-from-behind wild-card win against the Brewers… we needed five games to beat Los Angeles in the division series and crush our own postseason curse… we swept St. Louis and jumped to a two-game lead over Houston that we then refunded to find ourselves down 3-2, needing to win two games on the road.

(By then, it looked like the primary accomplishment of our ill-spent World Series homestand would be providing an appropriate and deserved greeting to President Trump. Readers: It’s your right to boo a politician making a public appearance at a baseball game–and if that politician otherwise hides from all unfriendly audiences, booing might be your obligation as a citizen.)

We grabbed game 6 from the Astros, but game 7 saw us staring down eight outs from a second-place finish that I would have accepted. Can’t lie: I thought we were smoked then.

Wrong. We did it. We flipped the script. The Nats are world champions. They can replace the blank white flag that’s flown over the Nationals Park scoreboard since the venue’s 2008 opening with a pennant bearing four digits: 2019.

Your Sunday chore: Cheer on Marine Corps Marathon runners

There’s a huge athletic event taking place in our nation’s capital this weekend that you don’t want to miss.

No, not the World Series (but how freaking amazing is that?!). The Marine Corps Marathon takes place Sunday in D.C. and Arlington, and watching that is a vastly cheaper than a ticket to Nationals Park. Plus, the runners could use your support.

If you live in Rosslyn, Georgetown or Crystal City, all neighborhoods through which the course runs, you’ll have little choice but to spectate. But between Metro and bikeshare, you should have plenty of chances to find a less-mobbed part of the course (read: not on the National Mall or in Rosslyn) to cheer on runners. My advice would be to find a spot later on in the course, when they’re more likely to appreciate the encouragement.

My longtime favorite spot has been the Virginia end of the 14th Street Bridge, a cruel stretch of concrete near the 20-mile mark that is one of the most brutal parts of the run. But two years ago, police turned away spectators there, so I had to bike over to Crystal City.

What if you don’t know anybody running? Just look at what they’re wearing. Lots of runners write their names on their shirts, so you can cheer them on directly instead of shouting variations of “Go runners!” and “You got this!” Many others will wear shirts with their college or other affiliations on them, which is your chance to give an on-brand shout-out.

That’s also your chance to set aside all your usual sports rivalries. As a Georgetown grad, I’m prepared to yell “Go Orange!” if I see somebody running in a Syracuse shirt or give a “Blue Devil!” shout to a runner in Duke attire… okay, the latter gesture might still make me feel a little dirty inside.

There is, however, one risk to this. Speaking from experience, seeing the determination etched into people’s faces may make you want to run the Marine Corps Marathon yourself.

The Nats aren’t done playing baseball this year

A postseason series involving the Washington Nationals ended last night, and I did not wake up this morning feeling like I got hit by a truck.

That’s a novel experience. Every prior postseason appearance by the Nats–2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, which followed seven years of playoff-deprived baseball, which themselves followed 33 0-0 seasons in D.C.–left me not just staggering-around tired but emotionally crushed.

It wasn’t enough for us to lose the division series. Each time, we had to lose after giving ourselves a serious chance to win–in 2012, getting an out away from the National League Championship Series.

It looked like game five in Los Angeles would follow that dismal pattern. Previously unhittable Stephen Strasburg gave up a home run in each of the first two innings to put us in a 3-0 hole against the 106-win Dodgers that we still had not escaped by the start of the eighth inning.

The only consolation it seemed we could claim would be reaching the NLDS at all–via a thrilling come-from-behind win over the Brewers in the wild-card game–after nobody expected the Nats to play anything but golf in October after a wretched 19-31 start.

But then history did not repeat itself. Solo home runs by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto tied the game and sent it to extra innings, Howie Kendrick’s grand slam sent the Nats bustin’ loose, and bedlam erupted in front of TVs.

And now the Washington Nationals are going to St. Louis to see if they can’t pay back the Cardinals for 2012 and win a pennant for D.C. for the first time since 1933 (the first Nationals) and 1948 (the Homestead Grays).

In the meantime, we know we’ll never again have to hear people carp that the Nats have never won a playoff series–the same way the Capitals blew up their Death Star by finally beating Pittsburgh in a postseason series last summer. The Caps weren’t content to kill off just one sports curse, and I trust the Nats aren’t either.

If only I weren’t going to be out of town for every NLCS home game next week…

Three decades of D.C., or how I learned to stop worrying and love the District

This Wednesday, classes began again at Georgetown University–which was my reminder that 30 years prior, I arrived in D.C. for my own new-student-orientation exercise. And somehow, I never got around to leaving.

I think that the awkward kid from New Jersey with the bad haircut has improved with age, but I know the city on the Potomac and the Anacostia has.

We overcame Marion Barry’s mayoral mismanagement and the city’s subsequent fiscal ruin (although municipal corruption lives on). The District’s population has topped 700,000, a level last seen in the 1970s, while the Washington area now ranks as the country’s sixth-most populous. Downtown is no longer pockmarked with parking lots, and neighborhoods teem with new development–some at the expense of residents who lived through the bad times. We have a baseball team that may yet advance past a division series in the postseason. The rivers and the Chesapeake Bay are cleaner. It’s vastly easier to get around without a car.

Yes, we have issues. Housing costs too much–but at least we don’t have San Francisco or New York’s insane real-estate markets. The summer weather is usually outright hideous. I wish there were more places to get a good bagel or a cannoli. Every place has its tradeoffs, and these are ours.

My appreciation of the upsides of here has advanced immensely too. For the first two years at Georgetown, I scarcely ventured farther from campus than Dupont Circle and spent my summers away. But I didn’t leave for the summer after my junior year, instead working an unpaid internship (thanks, Mom and Dad!) in the West End. That’s also when friends started bringing their own vehicles to off-campus group houses, allowing me to get to know much more of the District and its surroundings. (You haven’t fully lived K Street traffic until you’ve driven it in a 1977 Toyota Corolla with a four-speed stick shift.) An expanding Metro system further opened up the area to me, eventually leading me across the Potomac to Arlington.

It took me another three years to began discovering the bike-accessible parts of the D.C. area and realize one more great thing about living here: You don’t have to ride far to find yourself in the middle of a forest or overlooking a gorge, with only the sound of airplanes to remind you that not that many miles from a major city’s downtown.

Three decades in, I continue to find new parts of this place to celebrate and discover, as D.C. license plates used to say. And I’ve collected enough Washingtoniana memories to bore younger people with my curmodgeonly recollections: the reek of the old 9:30 Club, National Airport’s Interim Terminal, the evil and stupid taxi-zone map, seeing Fugazi play at Fort Reno shows. I look forward to gathering many more.

D.C. may be the city that politicians love to hate when they sneer about “Washington” (before deciding to stay here after they lose an election or retire), but it’s become the center of my world. My choice to go college someplace not at all like rural New Jersey seems to have worked out pretty well so far.