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Tuesday was also the last election to feature the photo-ID requirements that the General Assembly repealed this spring.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.