Secondary thoughts on working yet another primary election

Tuesday had a lot in common with the four days I spent last year working as an election officer for Arlington County. Just as in March, June, July and then November, I staggered through a sleep-deprived day that started with a 5 a.m. arrival at the polling place and didn’t end until around 8:30 p.m. As in all of those elections except last March’s Democratic presidential primary, the day left me with a fair amount of downtime to fill with reading a book and chatting with my fellow poll workers. And once again, it felt deeply fulfilling to help my fellow citizens do their part to hire candidates for temporary, taxpayer-funded jobs.

Lillies bloom in the foreground, while the background shows election signs in front of a community center in Arlington, Va.

But since November 3, the subject of election security–a topic I’ve been covering on and off for most of the last two decades–has fallen prey to fever-dream conspiracy theories among Donald Trump followers who refuse to believe that the former president was fired by the largest electorate in American history.

I am tempted to give this post over to yet another rant denouncing those advocates of Trump’s Big Lie–as well as the sedition sympathizers in Congress who kept pandering to those dead-enders after the deadly riot at the Capitol January 6.

But instead, I will talk about my workday Tuesday. Here are some things you should know about how we did our part in Virginia’s primary elections, which I hope map with how elections are run wherever you may read this:

• Trust paper. Arlington uses hand-marked paper ballots that each voter feeds into a scanner that will read the ballot if it’s upside-down, right-side up, forwards or backwards. (We also have ballot-marking devices for voters with disabilities.) That paper trail then becomes part of the risk-limiting audit that Virginia now conducts after each election; the audit run after November’s election (but not reported out until March) confirmed that the votes as scanned accurately recorded how people marked their ballots. If your state is among the minority to still use “direct-recording” machines that leave no paper trail (hello, Texas), direct your ire at the elected officials who haven’t fixed that problem.

• Don’t confuse voter identification with TSA Pre. I checked in one voter who did not have a Virginia driver’s license but did appear in our poll-book app as a registered voter, and I saw other voters show up with the same scenario. That was understandable, as the Virginia DMV is struggling to catch up with a pandemic-inflicted backlog. It would be unconscionable to kick those people out of polling places when one government bureaucracy can’t issue ID cards fast enough while another has already confirmed their eligibility. I should note here that this voter brought their voter registration card; should you get stuck in this situation, bringing that other piece of paper will save a tired poll worker a little time.

• Expect software to fail; design for resilience. The most reassuring paper product I saw Tuesday was the printout of the entire pollbook for our precinct, which meant that we did not have to rely on our pollbook app to stay up all day. Fortunately, that software did work, by which I mean it functioned aside from the feature that was supposed to scan the bar code on the back of a Virginia driver’s license but instead failed at least nine out of 10 times in my experience.

• Check everything at least twice. My day started with opening packs of ballots and counting them, 10 at a time. Each shrink-wrapped pack should have held 100 ballots and did, but we checked that anyway–so that there would be no discrepancy between the number of ballots handed out and the number of voters checked in. We also verified each total at the end of every hour; each time, there was no surplus of voters or ballots. And then we made one last check after polls closed to confirm that we had handed out exactly one ballot per voter.

If the above sounds inefficient, you read this right. Election administration has to suffer some inefficiency to accommodate the conflicting demands of allowing voters secret ballots and yielding an auditable paper record. Deal with it.

2020 in review: persistence required

Back in August, when 2020’s nightmare status had become numbingly obvious even if we didn’t know how much worse the novel-coronavirus pandemic would get, I recounted here what I’d typed to a friend in a chat the day before: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

As I type this, 2020 only has hours left to go, so simply being able to write this recap feels like a minor victory. But as I type this, I also see that the Johns Hopkins University pandemic dashboard I have checked far too many times year now lists a total of 344,030 Americans dead from the pandemic–a staggering, heartbreaking toll made worse by President Trump’s careless stewardship and pointless politicization of things as basic as wearing a mask. Among the earliest of those casualties: my senior-year roommate’s father.

Screenshot of the Mac Calendar app's year view of my work calendar, showing many days with no appointments at all.

Spending most of this year in what often felt like a form of house arrest seems like such an inconsequential side effect compared to that loss, or the brief hospital stays two relatives endured. But beyond leading to such developments as my briefly growing a beard, my cooking and gardening like never before, and our adopting a cat, the pandemic took a hammer to my own business.

As the economy crumpled, some of my clients cut their freelance budgets drastically or to zero; one of my best clients closed at the end of May. With business travel shut down–see how empty that screengrab of my calendar looks?–my sideline of moderating panels at conferences became an exercise confined to my desk instead of a way to get free trips to fun places.

I somehow scraped together enough work to see my income drop by only about 14 percent compared to 2019–but that year was itself not great. I can’t lie to you or to myself: Freelancing isn’t working as well for me as it did five years ago. But the entire profession of journalism is in far worse shape than it was five years ago.

Inconveniently enough, I still love the work. And I loved writing the following stories more than most.

In a year that’s seen me so cut off from people, the chance to call out abuses of power that made things harder for everybody else cooped up at home helped me feel a little more connected to you all.

So did my four long days of work as an election officer, concluding with the tiny role I played Nov. 3 helping Americans vote in unprecedented numbers and end Trump’s reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. That service for a cause much bigger than myself was nowhere near my best-paying work this year. But it may have been the most satisfying.

Weekly output: YouTube TV drops NESN, upload speeds, AMC earnings, FedEx tech, election social-media misinformation, Discovery vs. T-Mobile

The longest Election Day I’ve seen since 2000 wrapped up a few minutes before noon Saturday, when I checked my phone on a bike ride and saw that all the major news networks had called the race for Joe Biden. A few minutes later, I turned around and rode into D.C. to witness the city as ecstatic as I’ve ever seen it.

After four years of President Trump’s lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence, Americans have chosen a future that starts with four words: Donald Trump, private citizen. This is the resolution I had been hoping for since the morning of Nov. 9, 2016.

11/2/2020: RSN cuts continue as YouTube TV drops NESN, FierceVideo

I started the week by spending Monday covering breaking news at my trade-pub client. This post started with a tweet from my friend Ron Miller about his streaming-TV service dropping the network that carries Red Sox games.

11/2/2020: Upload speeds still lag on most Americans’ broadband, USA Today

This column revisited a subject I’d covered for the paper back in 2016, and I have to credit the work I did for the U.S. News Internet-provider package for refocusing my attention on this problem.

11/2/2020: AMC sees third-quarter 2020 income slip as subscriptions grow, FierceVideo

I wrote up AMC Networks’ Q3 earnings and had a little fun with the lede. From what Google tells me, I may have introduced the phrase “zombies and subscriptions” to the Web.

11/4/2020: FedEx is upgrading its tech for a holiday season in pandemic times, Fast Company

FedEx staged an online event for media that unpacked some interesting work it’s doing with robots and drones. One thing this effort won’t deliver anytime soon: a live delivery map like what UPS and Amazon offer.

11/6/2020: Election misinformation on social media, Al Jazeera

The translator for this live hit on the Arabic-language news network asked me if Twitter was being unfair to Trump. I replied that the president should try not lying so often.

11/6/2020: Discovery To T-Mobile: What Do You Think You’re Doing Bundling Us?, Forbes

Two weeks after I covered T-Mobile’s launch of a streaming-TV service with some attractive pricing and some notable gaps in the channel lineup, I wrote about the unlikely complaint of Discovery and two other entertainment-industry firms–that T-Mobile doesn’t have the contractual rights to put their channels on its $10 TVision Vibe package.

I voted. You should too. Will this help?

 

(Why? See this post from 2012. Sample quote: “Because if you don’t vote, you invite the stupidest voter in your precinct to cast a ballot on your behalf.”)

Why we vote

Because you want your candidate to win.

Because you want the other candidate to lose.

Because you can express your distaste for everybody on the ballot by writing in somebody else. Even yourself.

Because voting for the winning candidate can feel pretty good.

Because lining up to vote for the candidate who’s going to lose anyway demands a degree of stubbornness that should serve you well in other pursuits.

Because it’s not hard, and outside of presidential elections it rarely takes much time.

Because in state elections, you can do your small part to head off a lot of the nonsense that happens in state legislatures–like, say, attempts to make voting as bureaucratic and litigious as possible to stop the fictitious problem of in-person voter fraud.

Because in local elections, you have good odds of talking to the candidates directly, and you may even know some of them.

Because you may have the chance to vote on state constitutional amendments that will tie the government’s hands in ways you do or not want–or that may outright shame your state.

Because Americans have been beaten, jailed and killed trying to defend their right to vote. Our overcoming our worst instincts is part of our story as a country; honor it.

Because it’s your damn job as a citizen of the United States of America.

Because if you don’t vote, you invite the stupidest voter in your precinct to cast a ballot on your behalf.

Because if you can’t be bothered to vote, why should anybody care about what you think about the state of the country?

11/6, 8:13 a.m. Added one more reason to this list.

The campaign-distraction factor

We have only 17 days until Election Day, which is good. I don’t think I can stand any more of this.

Compared to earlier presidential campaign seasons, I held off the obsessive news-gathering stage for a long time this year. But the combination of the advancing calendar and shifting, contrary poll results has finally pulled me in; there’s no way I won’t be less productive through November 6. Possibly the 7th, depending on how long election night runs before somebody calls a winner.

This isn’t the first presidential campaign that I could follow to an unhelpful degree: 2000, 2004 and 2008 took large bites out of my schedule. (There were probably intense discussions on Usenet about Dole and Clinton in ’96 that have since escaped my memory.) But in each of those years, I spent most of my workdays in an office, while mobile Web access ranged from nonexistent to underdeveloped.

Now, however, there’s nobody sitting next to my desk to ask why I’m checking Talking Points Memo or FiveThirtyEight for the fifth or eighth time in the workday. And stepping out to run an errand doesn’t mean I can’t get that fix of political updates–even if they amount to little more than noise.

The other difference this time is that, unbound by delusional social-media guidelines, I don’t have to pretend that I have no interest in the outcome. So I’m a little more open about what I think on Twitter. And on Friday, I went to President Obama’s rally at George Mason University (photo above), which allowed me to hear “Romnesia” make its debut in this year’s headlines. Fact: campaign rallies can be fun if you support the person running. I didn’t know that before, having never gone to one until Friday.

(That support doesn’t extend to donating money or my labor. Working on behalf of a candidate goes way beyond making a little noise in the stands.)

The wait on election night to see if things go my way may not be so much fun. I like the president’s odds–but as a Nats fan, I know how the score can change unexpectedly and unpleasantly if your team loses focus. Seventeen more days.