#317: An Election Diary

Polling site in an empty school cafeteria.
Southwest Neighborhood, Detroit, MI

As you may recall from a previous newsletter, I signed up to be a poll worker earlier this year. I worked the presidential primary in March, and then our local one in August. August was especially trying; we were severely understaffed due to Covid, and two of the four precinct chairs at our location never showed up. I stepped in as acting chair at mine despite not being trained for it, because I was one of the few people there who’d even worked a past election.

I ran my precinct again this past Tuesday, and this time with the appropriate training. I thought it might be interesting to share, with you, some notes I took on my phone on election day.

3:45am: Wake. Last minute print-out of document from sos [Michigan Secretary of State] about challengers and poll watchers, in case it’s not part of supplied election materials.

I was due in at 5am, two hours before polls opened. We were also given the day prior to set up the booths and tables at our location, which was a boon as in August we were scrambling to do it by the time polls opened. Challengers here in Michigan have to be registered ahead of time, and have to identify themselves as belonging to a list of approved partisan and non-partisan organizations. Going in, this was probably the thing I was the most worried about (as evidenced by my backup printing above). But we had no conflicts, and no challenged ballots. The challengers were more just curious about the process and trying to ensure that no voters were disenfranchised. We also had Spanish-speaking interpreters onsite (Southwest Detroit has a large Latinx population), as well as multiple ASL interpreters.

Once we got rolling, it was, for the most part, like both elections I’d worked before – business as usual. Sometime between this and my next timestamped note, I typed into my phone: I will not let fear rule my life.

10:19am: First time stopping to catch breath. Snacks, water. Tricky managing people, trying to reduce confusion.

Though not overwhelming, it was still a busy day – a morning rush followed by a steady stream of voters. If anything, my precinct was overstaffed, and that meant making myself available to answer first-time workers’ questions, and generally trying to smooth the voting process.

I’ll give you an example: Each precinct has its own tabulator into which the voter feeds their completed ballot. We’d set up the precincts’ booths so that once voters were done marking their ballots, they’d naturally flow toward the right tabulator. But with four precincts sharing the same room, and two of those precincts significantly busier than the others, what happens if all the booths at one precinct are full and the booths at another are empty? Do you have the next voter wait, or do you just direct them to a different precinct’s booth and risk them going to the wrong tabulator afterwards (which people do even if you tell them to go to the correct one)? Even though tabulators will reject ballots belonging to a different precinct, it potentially creates confusion for the voter, and added hassle for the workers manning the tabulators.

I spent a few moments weighing the pros and cons with another precinct chair, and we ultimately decided that we were okay with a little extra work and confusion – in order to keep the lines short.

12:36pm: Lunch. Longest day.

The morning seemed to drag on, much more so than the primaries. I chalk it up in part to being busy enough that I couldn’t to take a full lunch break and walk around outside. Although this election, unlike previous ones, the City had extra funding to provide boxed lunches for everyone (and bump up workers’ pay). Sometime in the afternoon, two boxes of donuts also magically appeared from an unknown source – a welcome snack.

1:41pm: Phone as light.

Only one of our five voting booths had a working light, so I lent an older voter my phone flashlight to help them see. Last election, our booths were different models – models that didn’t even have built-in lights to begin with. The lighted ones can be daisy-chained, but are then only accessible from the non-chained side. Such are challenges of election day, and of hosting, a few times every couple of years, hundreds of precincts across a city in space borrowed from schools and churches, each with its own quirks (like inconveniently situated power outlets).

I can imagine a better-funded city having some type of election swat team, whose job it is to meticulously survey and design every space. But I also think there’s a kind of elegance to our current no-cost solution, which is to have the same workers work the same polling location election after election. A site-specific knowledge gets preserved, improved on, transmitted, through generations of election-shokunin – Jiro dreams of voting booths.

Or not! At the very least, you learn to set up the same precincts in the same part of the room each time, because voters’ spatial memories are better than their memories of their precinct numbers. You learn to prep the end-of-night envelopes in your downtime. You learn to bring three-way splitters and extra extension cords to supplement the included ones, because you can always use more.

5:17pm: Where did the time go? Curbside voting. Nice to wait in the sun.

My one extended break in the unusually nice weather was getting to wait outside with another poll worker and a pair of challengers, while a voter with a disability completed their ballot from their car. Michigan allows curbside voting, but anytime a worker assists a voter with such a ballot, they have to be accompanied by a second person (worker or non) who is affiliated with a different party. It’s the kind of thing that seems quaint – and maybe even precarious – from the outside, but it works and it works well, and is backed up with further layers of checks. I think it’s exemplary of the combination of human and technological, analog and digital, paper and electronic, that has become a part of this unique process that we call an American election.

6:19pm: “It’s getting to be that silly time, like 2AM in an elementary school sleepover.”

Said P., thirteen hours into the shift.

7:00pm: Quiet lull.

With polls closing at 8pm, we’d started counting down the minutes, and by this time my biggest anxieties had been smoothed away. So much about this election seemed novel, unpredictable, but my moment-to-moment experience of it was, for the most part, just like the two I’d worked before. I go back to my note from the start of the day: I will not let fear rule my life. Or to put it a few more words:

I will not let
how I imagine
things to be

get in the way
of my seeing
how they are.

What sticks out most to me, in these days after the election, are the individual voters, some of whom I’ve come to recognize as regulars. I’ll remember the one woman who seemed to know everyone in the precinct – who told me, back in August, that one day she was going to run for mayor of Detroit (and was counting on my support).

There’s the person who doesn’t speak much English, but who, both times I’ve seen them, wanted to learn and understand every detail about the proposals and amendments on the ballot.

I’ll remember looking up sometime during the day – and I can’t remember when, exactly – and seeing one of my colleagues narrate for a voter, who was curious about the Electoral College, a comprehensive, off-the-cuff history, starting in the 1800s.

9:30pm: Wrapped. Waiting to go to Ford field!

And I’ll also remember A. and I dropping off the transfer case, sealed with ballots inside, to the local counting board. In past elections this was at a school in the area (picture walking into an elementary school gym filled with older Black ladies). But this time, for obvious reasons, the City moved all the counting boards to a central location – the local pro football stadium. As we waited, A. pointed out that my black pants were stained orange through the back pocket, from where I’d been temporarily shoving the used Clorox wipes we’d been using to disinfect the voting booths. The TV screens all around us were showing major-network coverage of a press conference by our Secretary of State, being broadcast live from elsewhere in the stadium.

Here’s the photo I took on my way out, just after 11pm:

Receiving board tables in foreground. Empty football field in background.
Ford Field, Detroit, MI

Surreal. That’s best word to describe the nights’ end – and maybe this whole year. Surreal.