GUEST COLUMN: Watching the polls

This past election I served as a poll watcher at the Mineral Baptist Church. I had never done this, and kind of fell into it. I’d like to share my experiences there so that people can gain an understanding of how the voting process works from the perspective of the people who administer it. 

I was not a poll worker, actually taking voters through the process of voting and running the tallies, but I was present for the whole day with those who did, and they were very conscientious and professional.  

I arrived at 5:15 a.m., and most of the poll workers were already there. I stayed until the tallies were completed, and the equipment was mostly packed up and the room put back together, sometime around 8 p.m. The poll workers were planning to leave in a few minutes at that point. It was a long, long day. There were a few times, mostly in the first hour, when there was a rush of people and it got a bit stressful, but everyone there, including all of the voters, was always polite, respectful, and civil. Usually friendly!  

At the end of every hour, when there was a slow point, they’d stop the voting, and look at the machine tallies, and compare that to the paper ballots counted, and the number checked off from the voter rolls. The process of having so many absentee ballots in process made it a little complicated, so there were some ways it could get out of kilter, but they had ways of dealing with it that seemed very rigorous.

Let me explain. If you had requested an absentee ballot, that was logged in at the registrar’s office when they sent it out. If the vote had been returned, either by mail or by people carrying it in to the registrar’s office, that was logged as a vote completed and done, but not yet tallied as of the start of election day. Your vote was cast, and you couldn’t vote again a second time on Election Day. One person, one vote. 

If it had been mailed out, but not returned, you were allowed to fill out a provisional ballot, and the first ballot that had been mailed out would have gotten the priority, so the provisional ballot would not have been opened and tallied until the deadline for receiving the mail-ins had passed. If the original one came in, the provisional ballot would be destroyed. One person, one vote. 

If someone had received their absentee ballot but chose not to return it, they could bring it to the polling station, where they would tear it up in front of the chief election officer, the contents placed in a bag to go back to the registrar, and they could vote normally in person, with notice going back to the registrar, in real time, so everything checked out. One person, one vote. 

If the person wanted to turn in their absentee ballot in person at the polling place (there were concerns about the punctuality of the mail system), they could do it right there, and that ballot was put in a sealed envelope to be counted at the registrar’s office alongside the other mail-ins, keeping them all together.  One person, one vote. 

All in all, there were not too many of these instances, but they got special attention to be sure they were handled right. The chief handled them, while the other officers handled the more routine interactions.  

The other non-standard interactions had to do with people who were in the process of moving and were not on the rolls, or who didn’t have ID. All of these were handled correctly according to protocol. I had gotten a training on what that protocol was; it was based on the same training the poll workers got. The manual was lengthy and somewhat complicated, and I couldn’t do it justice in a letter to the editor, but what I saw in every case was that situations were handled according to protocol. If there was any doubt, or they were trying to find out what precinct the voter should go to, it was confirmed in a real-time phone call to the registrar’s office. One person, one vote.  

During these interactions, each voter was treated with respect and dignity. There were no discernible differences. I was looking for it, and I would have seen it. Whether you were an old buddy, Black, white, a stranger, everyone was treated the same. No preference. One person, one vote.  

Even though there weren’t too many cases like this, we had multiple calls per hour to the registrar’s office during Election Day, and we were a relatively small precinct. The others, I am sure, had similar calls going in. That meant it is very unlikely that the registrar’s office had time to process mail-in ballots during Election Day. Some states allowed that to happen when they came in; Virginia was not one of them. So those ballots, which skewed Democratic in general, were counted later.  This is part of why the “blue shift” happened.  

In my precinct, there were fewer voters than in urban precincts. So everything happens faster. Remember there is only one chief officer per precinct. Large precincts in other localities had more issues because they had more voters. It’s natural. Each hourly tally takes more time, and may not happen on the hour, since the chief is dealing with more situations. That means more reconciliation at the end. Those precincts take longer to report, and they tend to be in urban areas, which tend to skew Democratic. That’s the other reason for the “blue shift.” This happens every election, and to pretend that it is some sort of shocker is to deny history.  

My precinct went overwhelmingly Republican in all the races with in-person voting. It reported right away.  All normal. In the rush of the first hour, there was a one-vote discrepancy between the machine tally and the number of ballots handed out (which agreed with the voter roll number). The poll workers sought diligently to find the source. It could have been a variety of possibilities, and I don’t think it was resolved by the day’s end. I don’t suspect a one-vote fraud.  

At the top, I mentioned that this was my first time doing this. I was a representative for the Democratic Party.  The poll workers, I was told by my colleagues, were mostly Republican. I hold the utmost respect for them.  There were two Republican poll watchers at my precinct.  One in the morning, one in the afternoon. There was a gap of a couple of hours between them. The morning guy was a first timer like me.  The afternoon guy had done this a few times, and showed me how to record the tally. The relationship was cooperative.  Between the Republican poll watchers, the poll workers, and myself, the mission was shared – that the election be done fairly and accurately.  

All in all, the process was mostly pretty repetitive and boring. Things went as they should. People were kind, responsible, and courteous across the board. There was no conspiracy evident. It was an honor to be part of it. Next time, I’ll bring a book or two.  

There is a fair bit of misinformation about the voting and vote accounting process.  I can’t speak with first-hand knowledge about what happened elsewhere, but I have every reason to think that what we experienced here was actually pretty normal.  

Ken Jollofsky lives in Zion Crossroads.

Recommended for you