Election Day 2020, from 5:05 a.m. to 9:21 p.m.

I had my longest workday of the year (or so I can only hope) Tuesday when I served as an election officer for Arlington County, my fourth time this year. Here’s how things went, hour by hour.

  • 5:05 a.m. It’s near freezing out and Venus still sits fairly high in the sky as I arrive. I join 11 other poll workers in setting up the hardware, including two ballot scanners. We decide to keep the exit door open to ensure the space stays well ventilated.

  • 5:43 a.m. Ballots come in shrink-wrapped packs of 100 each, but I’ve hand-counted 200, 10 at a time, to ensure we know just how many we give to voters and can compare that total with how many went into the ballot scanner. (Voters can request a new ballot if they make a mistake, after which we mark the old one “spoiled,” record it on a sheet, and put the spoiled ballot into a large envelope.) Halfway through that, I decided I was too tired to try practicing my French and Spanish by counting to 10 in each language. 

  • 5:45 a.m. I look outside and see there’s already a line of voters waiting.

  • 6 a.m. Polls open, and voters stream in. Four minutes later, we have our first voter with a dog; the pup wears an American-flag bandanna. We don’t get a break until 35 minutes later, and 29 minutes after that, we see our first parent to bring a kid.

  • 6:59 a.m. Working the ballot table doesn’t leave me much to do, except when a voter makes a mistake and wants a new ballot. The first such spoiled one goes into the designated envelope. 

  • 7:39 a.m. For the first time in four elections I’ve worked, a ballot gets jammed in the scanner. Rebooting the device, as advised by tech support, doesn’t work, but unlocking it from the ballot receptacle and sliding it free revealed a ballot with a folded corner that had gotten hung up on its way out of the machine.

  • 8:07 a.m. A crew for the German television network ARD stops inside to film for a segment that airs without this interior footage. Two minutes later, we have our first voter requesting a provisional ballot after (if I heard this correctly from across the room) their requested absentee ballot did not arrive.

  • 8:53 a.m. Ugh, so tired. Coffee delivery not due to happen until 9:30 a.m., also known as four and a half hours after we got to work.

  • 9:38 a.m. Where is that coffee?

  • 9:42 a.m. COFFEE! ☕ I enjoy this with a second breakfast of homemade scones.

  • 11:12 a.m. A man arrives wearing a mask, sunglasses and a hat, as if to point out the questionable utility of Virginia’s now-repealed photo-ID requirement in a pandemic.

  • 12:40 p.m. Can’t lie, I just nodded off behind the ballot table.

  • 1:10 p.m. Things slow down enough for me to enjoy the lunch I’d packed eight-plus hours ago at a picnic table outside.

  • 1:37 p.m. Time to charge my phone, which I have been checking for news way too often despite the lack of useful insights on the election.

  • 2:30 p.m. After switching to the poll-book table, I discovered that KnowInk’s Poll Pad app may have issues with surnames longer than one word. First I couldn’t find a voter whose last name began with the Arabic prefix “al-” (I had to type it without the hyphen), and then it didn’t spot somebody with a “di ” Italian prefix until I entered that without a space.

  • 2:49 p.m. The poll worker who took over my spot at the ballot table gives us some excitement when she discovers one pack of ballots contain only 99, not the specified 100.

  • 3:43 p.m. Voter check-in involves us looking up the voter by name in the app, then asking them to say their address. If they recently moved but are in the same precinct, we can fix that on the spot. I see this with several voters, including one gentleman who forgot to update his home address while his wife, with him to vote, had.

  • 5:48 p.m. I hand off poll-book duty to take a spot by the scanner, where I tell voters the scanner will read their ballot whether they feed it in upside-down, right side up, forwards or backwards–then invite them to take a sticker, one of the best parts  of this job.

  • 7 p.m. The two scanners recorded a total of 358 votes, exactly matching the number of ballots handed out and not spoiled. That’s light turnout–we saw 1,046 voters for the March 3 Democratic presidential primary–except this precinct already had 1,585 voters cast ballots in advance.

  • 7:18 p.m. We print the results from the scanners, revealing both vote totals and images of everybody’s write-in votes. They range from Calvin Coolidge to Tony Bennett (unclear if the voter meant the singer or UVA’s basketball coach) to “EAT SHIT.”

  • 7:54 p.m. Having printed and signed the results and extracted the flash drives from each that contain images of every ballot, we can stow the scanners. We then collect the ballots and secure them in a sealed box.

  • 9:21 p.m. After an hour of collecting various pieces of paper, signing them, tucking them in designated envelopes and sealing those, then stowing the rest of the election hardware, we’re done. The precinct chief thanks us, and we give him a round of applause. A late dinner awaits.

Warning: Election work may be habit-forming

For the third time this year–and the second time in three weeks–I woke up at 4 a.m. to start a workday that wouldn’t end until after 8 p.m.

I had thought at the time that the almost 16 hours I spent March 3 staffing the Democratic presidential primary would be my one-and-done immersion in the field. I’d learned firsthand about voter identification rules, the importance of a simple paper-ballot user experience, and the intense care taken to verifying the process and the results, and a second round didn’t seem that it could teach me much more.

But then the novel-coronavirus pandemic led many older poll workers to opt out, while my freelance work has yet to fill up my schedule in the way it did a year ago. After reading enough stories about electoral debacles in other states, I had to re-up when my precinct chief e-mailed to ask if I could work the June 23 Republican primary and the July 7 special election to fill an Arlington County Board seat.

I also figured that I wouldn’t see much of a crowd on either day. That was especially true for the GOP primary, when only 41 voters showed up (all of whom I appreciated for doing so) for the election that determined Daniel Gade would run against Sen. Mark Warner. I was glad that I’d brought a book to read, and that my colleagues for the day proved to be good company.

Tuesday saw 114 voters cast ballots to help put Takis Karantonis on the County Board. It also featured better protective gear for poll workers, in the form of comfortable cloth face masks with nicely-official-looking “Election Officer” labels as well as acrylic shields for the poll-book workers checking in voters.

Tuesday was also the last election to feature the photo-ID requirements that the General Assembly repealed this spring. This time, with voters consistently wearing their own masks, looking at tiny black-and-white thumbnail portraits on driver’s licenses was even more of a formality compared to the older and simpler method of asking each voter to state their name and address and then matching that to their entry in the poll book.

One of the other people working this election made a point of saying “see you in November!” to each voter. The resulting enthusiastic responses ranged from “You bet!” to “hell yes” to “I’ll be here at 4 a.m.”

That’s going to be a big deal and a lot of work. Friday morning, the precinct chief e-mailed Tuesday’s crew to thank us for the work and express his hope that we’d be on to help with the general election in November… and, yes, I think I see where this is going for me.

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.