One of the sheets of paper taped on the wall in Richmond’s Maple Avenue Fire Station Tuesday was a recruiting poster seeking additional qualified people to become “one of the elite!” Not Marines, not Green Berets or fire fighters – election officers. Uncle Sam and Aunt Virginia need you for this job, too.
The various disputes in House of Delegates races last fall reminded me that I had always wanted to try working inside the polls. For many years I was doing precinct work on the outside, taking care of the GOP signs and giving voters a handout or final harangue, and sometimes I watched the count process as a party observer. That’s not happening in the Age of Trump so I wanted another way to get involved.
This year brought some certainty that I could keep the days of the primary and general elections free, so Tuesday at five a.m. I stumbled into the firehouse for my rookie effort. Given it was an abysmal-turnout primary (GOP ballot only in Richmond) and the voters would be few and far between, it was a perfect practice run. A few general observations:
First, I really would encourage you to try this assuming you are up to a 15-16 hour day with a good bit of time on your feet. It is vital that people who respect the election process are conducting it, because it is still very hands-on and open to error.
Second, somebody needs to put in a bill that gives local electoral boards full powers of eminent domain for election days. Finding the right locations with sufficient parking is also important as long as we continue one-day, in-person voting. Yours truly failed in his morning mission of protecting a few parking spaces in the nearby public lot as reserved for voters, and suddenly there was only one space open. I chased many non-voters out of it. I’m semi-serious that a short term grant of eminent domain might help secure locations and parking.
Third, changing precinct lines should be hard to do and happen very seldom. It breeds great confusion, and we had scores of voters complaining “but I’ve always voted here!” and “I never saw any notice!” when they were turned away. The new electronic poll books automatically generate actual driving directions to the correct polling place, printed on a slip to hand to the unhappy voter. That helps.
Fourth, it’s amazing how many voters remain unaware of which candidates match their districts. That part of Richmond used to be in the Seventh Congressional District, Dave Brat’s district, and a few years ago was moved by court order to the Fourth District, now represented by Donald McEachin. We had another subset of voters, larger than the group coming to the wrong poll, who wanted to vote in the Seventh District Democratic primary. Some got all the way checked in before realizing they didn’t want to vote in the GOP primary.
This problem is on the voters, and to some extent on the parties who could consider at least one pre-election mailing to each registered household with that basic information. We started stressing to people at the door that our precinct had no Democratic primary. It will happen again in November because of the spirited race coming in that neighboring district.
Electronic poll books, paper ballots that are automatically assessed and counted by the voting machine, a new machine for the visually impaired which we didn’t need – the technology is great, but at the end of the day civility and humor and patience keep the flow moving and human eyes need to confirm that the person standing there is indeed who they say they are, and that the numbers on the poll books, on the paper ballot tally, and on the voting machine all balance. We check every 15 minutes.
It was a breeze Tuesday. When five or six times that many voters come in November, it will be more problematic. Think about joining us.