What Happens When The Polls Close: A Poll Worker Reveals All

It was my intention to write a blog today about what it’s like to be a poll worker after the polls close and all the votes have to be counted.  In light of the unexpected Trump win, however, some of you might rather just go watch cat videos in your pajamas with a bottle of tequila, and if this is the case, you have my permission to do so.  Take care of you.

In my state, the polls closed at 7:00 pm.  It was immediately called as a Trump win.  Since my state is neither any shade of purple nor a swing state, the rest of the country gave no more thought to the ballots cast here.  However, rest assured each and every ballot is counted here just like everywhere else.  I’ve worked with a few different election commissions, and every one of them takes this job very seriously. I’ve encountered a few frustrations, usually in the form of less than up to date technology, but everyone I have encountered during this process has been professional.

I also consider myself a professional.  I’ve received training, and I am paid for the work I do.  I hope all my friends that keep thanking me for my volunteerism are not disappointed, but the truth is being involved in the polls at any level means putting aside your personal preferences in favor of the integrity of the process, and this requires a bit more from you than just being an enthusiastic volunteer.  After all, I have put myself in a position where I can go to jail for fraud.  They like to have your social security number in that type of situation.

My job begins when the polls close, and it begins by waiting.  Even though the polls close at 7:00, everyone who is still in line gets to vote, and all ballots have to be accounted for before everything is put in a big locked box and escorted to a central location by state prisoners accompanied by armed guards.  I find this somewhat ironic, and I always wonder if any of the people transporting ballots have been denied the right to vote.

The boxes (there are 50 of them) didn’t really start arriving until about 8:30 at which point, Trump had already taken the lead in made-up media world. The last box didn’t show up until almost 11:00.

The boxes are then opened and every ballot, including affidavits and absentee ballots for that district, is accounted for.  A little black box with electronic data on it is carried off to a secret room where most of the votes are tabulated.

But each box also has a number of paper ballots, each in its own sealed envelope.  These are absentee ballots and early voting ballots.  My state has very limited early voting for people who are over 65 or meet other specific criteria.  Still, in our county that amounted to 6000 sealed envelopes.  Do you know how long it takes to open 6000 sealed envelopes?  Hours and hours. It turns out, there is a machine for this.  A letter-opening machine.  But we only have one of those, and sometimes it slices the ballot into strips.  Most of these ballots go through a scantron machine, but the machine cannot read them all. About 20% require human eyes.  That’s where I come in.

I am a member of what’s called the Resolution Committee.  If your ballot cannot be read by a machine for any reason, it comes to us and we do our very best to create a new ballot that reflects your intentions.  The new ballot is marked with a code that links it to your old ballot which is kept in another locked box, and then it gets fed back through the machine.  Some ballots are printed out on regular paper and are simply the wrong size to go through the machine.  Others are creased from being folded to fit into the envelope.  An accidental smudge (or the 4 people who wrote their names on their ballots) or a small tear can also throw the machine off.

Then there are the people who just cannot or will not fill in a bubble.  I do not know who you people are.  But for those of you who circled your favorite candidates, or marked them with a check or an x or a smiley face, your vote was counted.

Then there are the write-in candidates.  My state does not recognize write-ins unless someone dies, but there is a space that says write-in, and some people insist on using it. To be fair, this is pretty confusing, and I think there should be big signs that explain this or something, but there are not.

So if you wrote in anyone, your vote did not get counted although we recreated the rest of your ballot if you made an actual choice for another race.  I do not know who you think you are going to amuse by writing in Mickey Mouse.  Who do you think sees that?  I will tell you. Me.  Just me. Or another committee member. At 1:00 in the morning.  We do not think you are funny. And if you wrote in Bernie Sanders, your ballot was treated exactly the same way as Mickey’s.  I hope you feel good about yourself.

The most common user error was selecting multiple candidates for one office.  I don’t know what you people are trying to pull.  Is this supposed to be some kind of political statement?  It is not.  It is paperwork paid for by your tax dollars.

In partisan elections, there are 2 committees, one for each party.  So during the primaries, I handled only democratic ballots.  During the general election, there is no party affiliation attached to your ballot in this state, so we just merge into one big committee.

This means that while you were yelling obscenities at the TV and texting your ex who you just know voted third party, I was actually watching the results come in sitting at a table with members of the Republican Party.  For almost 7 hours.

A certain amount of professionalism is expected and maintained.  This is not the time or the place to talk politics.  Still, 7 hours, most of which is spent waiting for other people to open envelopes, is a really long time, and there is only so much time you can spend discussing Rebel Football. For me, this is approximately 7 minutes.

I will be honest.  I thought these people were monsters.  I cannot think of one excusable reason to vote for Donald Trump.  Not one.  Not because you are pro-life, not because you are anti-immigration, not because you want a conservative supreme court.  There is nothing NOTHING that justifies the support of a racist, misogynist bigot like Donald Trump.  My months of incredibly amateur research on the Trump phenomenon yielded no answer other than the fact that his supporters hate everyone different from themselves.  Themselves being white male supremacists.

Well, they looked like normal people.

Ok, well really they looked like well to do former Greek Society members.  And they were. But as the night wore on, and state after state turned red on the big map in the front of the room, I discovered something interesting.

While cheering every time your candidate got an electoral vote would be considered in poor taste, you might expect at least someone in the room to be feeling celebratory even if gloating was kept to a minimum.  But they weren’t celebrating.  Not even a little bit.  In fact, they considered the entire election to be one big shit show controlled by the media which was unlikely to result in anyone being completely satisfied.  They are not wrong.

I waited for someone to slip up and show their true colors, to say something racist or homophobic or misogynistic, but no one ever did.  The closest the conversation came to that was speculation over whether Hillary and Bill had an arrangement that included both of them taking on female lovers (this was after the coffee ran out), with a bipartisan consensus that this was entirely their business and theirs alone.

They seemed just as worried about the next four years as I am, and worried about many of the same things.  They worried about having enough money to leave something to their children, about being able to afford medical care, about global warming.

I’m not at all sure what to take away from this. I still think a vote for Trump was an irredeemable heinous act.  But while we shared the last snickers bar at 2 am, the Republican contingent seemed just as bewildered as I felt.  As to why they voted for Trump, I really don’t know, but my sense was that it is because they are Republicans.  And that’s what Republicans in red states do.  That doesn’t seem like anything close to a good enough reason.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  At this particular moment, I am blaming those of you who would not consider backing Bernie because you thought an establishment candidate would do better against an anti-establishment candidate, but we are not going to ever learn anything from this election by declaring the winners monsters.  I’m going to need some time to work on that.


It’s 2 am. Do you know where your Voter ID is?

I woke up at about 2:00 this morning after dosing off with all the lights on.  I grumpily surfaced to acknowledge that I had completely failed at adult bedtime.  I hadn’t brushed my teeth or taken my Omega 3s or set my alarm or locked the door, and OMG who won Iowa?

If the results of the Iowa caucus aren’t keeping you up at night, you’re not alone.  However, while I haven’t seen any official numbers yet,  it looks like voter turn-out  was better than expected.  With less than 1/3 of eligible voters expected to turn out to caucus, we’re looking at a pretty low bar.  Americans define ourselves by our democracy-our ability to elect our own leaders and be part of the decision making process on the issues that directly affect us.  So why don’t we vote?

The 2014 midterm elections showed the worst voter turnout since 1942 with only 36% of eligible voters casting ballots.  The more educated and more affluent are more likely to vote, and women under 65 are more likely to vote than men of the same age.  But what’s really happening here?  Are the registration process and voter ID laws to blame?

Roadblocks to voting are certainly a factor, but when the U.S. Census Bureau asked people why they did not vote, only 6% reported issues with registration, transportation, or polling locations.  The disenfranchised are notoriously underrepresented in polls like this, so I suspect the number is somewhat higher than that, and we need to do a better job at making sure everyone has the opportunity to cast a ballot.  Another 11% of respondents cited disability or illness, and this too must be addressed.

There are minor tweaks that could make voting more accessible to everyone including same day voter registration, mail in ballots, and creating a National Holiday for elections as proposed by Bernie Sanders.  These are crucial steps to creating a true participatory democracy. But they don’t address the primary reasons people do not vote.

A whopping 28% of those who didn’t vote stated it was because they didn’t have the time.  I call bullshit.  Making it to the polls during a 12 hour window is not always easy.  Shit happens.  The sitter cancels, meetings go late, there’s a pileup on the highway.  But 28%? Like the many things we don’t make time for in our lives, voting is just not that big of a priority.  The second leading cause according to the survey was “Not interested” at 16% with an additional 8% saying they didn’t like the candidates or the issues involved.  At least those people were honest.  That gives you over half of people not voting because they didn’t care enough to make the time.

Apathy is a difficult problem to tackle.  Convincing people that their vote matters may be an uphill battle.  The first step is to get rid of the Electoral College.  It’s long out dated and makes people like me who vote blue in a red state feel like their time would be better spent getting a latte, at least during presidential elections.  How can we expect our millennials to believe in populism if we don’t even have a popular vote?  Civic Engagement should be an important part of high school education.  Every Social Studies teacher in every high school should have a stack of registration forms to hand out to students as they turn 18.  Maybe we could spend a little less time on the War of 1812 and a little more on modern policy. Which might be actually interesting.  How about a class on how Flint managed to poison all its children with lead instead of 6 weeks of the Bolshevik Revolution?  Would that create a classroom full of people who believe it matters what our elected officials do?  Would it perhaps prevent a modern day Bolshevik Revolution?

It shouldn’t be that difficult to convince people that it matters whether Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders is president.  We need to create a culture where every citizen feels they have a role in making that choice.  Go vote.  Make the time. Take a friend.