Elections Past, Present, and to Come

by Rosemary Claire Smith

Across the United States, public-spirited citizens are stepping forward to serve as election officers, poll workers, and judges for the November 3, 2020 elections. Way back in 2016, Analog readers had the opportunity to read my thoughts as to what it’s like to do this job, which was based on my experiences over several elections. It involves setting up voting machines at the polling place, checking in registered voters and handing them ballots, assisting with any difficulties they encounter, tabulating and reporting the results when the polls close, and securing all ballots and equipment, not to mention other tasks designed to ensure that our election runs smoothly. Many of my observations from 2016 are as true now as they were then.

Nevertheless, what a difference four years makes. Previously, almost every election officer I met was older than me, some a lot older. Many precincts had grown accustomed to making do with barely enough volunteers to staff their operations. This year, it is immensely gratifying to see public-spirited citizens, some as young as eighteen years old, signing up from coast to coast eager to do what they can to make our democratic process work well. Here’s hoping the experience proves sufficiently rewarding that this year’s influx won’t be a one-time phenomenon.

My focus in 2016 was on Election Day itself. This year, voters in many states are increasingly relying on mail-in ballots, drop-boxes, and early in-person voting. It’s great to see that in some jurisdictions, new poll workers can also help with mailing ballots to voters, securing the ones returned, and staffing early voting sites. What’s more, some states recently implemented systems making it as straightforward to track one’s ballot online as a package shipped to one’s home.

These developments come largely in response to the pandemic, which brings me to this statement in my 2016 piece: “Going to my precinct never involved a calculation as to personal safety.” I went on to describe what such an assessment had been like for one newly-minted American citizen I met at the polls who had lived for many years under Soviet repression. As I contemplate the 2020 elections, it’s my fervent wish that the dedicated efforts of many will bring about a day when nobody in the United States or in any other nation is forced to make a calculation about physical safety when comes time to vote.

Our Duty, Our Right, Our Privilege

(Analog, March 2016)

Before everyone becomes tired of campaign ads, especially those attack ads we profess to despise but which inescapably influence our voting, let me ask you a question. Would you be willing to work 15 or 16 hours or longer on election day so that your neighbors can vote in person at the polls? What if I told you that our democratic system of government depends on a great many citizens across the United States stepping up to do so, though it means setting aside their regular job and family obligations for the day? Those who serve as Election Officers are volunteers, not employees of either the government or any political party. These are the ones who verify that you are a registered voter, who usher you to the next available voting booth, and who hand you an “I Voted” sticker. They perform other vital tasks that you don’t see. My own experiences as an Election Officer for my community have colored my thinking about our democratic processes.

Election Day begins for me when I arrive at my local elementary school before dawn, at 5:00 a.m. I bring a small cooler with my lunch and some snacks to see me through the day, as there is no time to go out for lunch. In fact, I’m unlikely to see sunshine all day, unless I need to bring a portable voting machine to the curb so that a disabled voter who has been driven to the precinct can vote. If all goes well, and the last voters have finished casting their ballots a little after 7:00 p.m., my colleagues and I turn to the next vital task: we start counting and verifying the ballots recorded by each voting machine for every race, bond issue, constitutional amendment, and what have you. Though we’re weary from the long day, we need to focus on making sure the numbers are recorded correctly and that everything adds up. We usually finish double-checking all counts and certify the results by 9:30 p.m. Nevertheless, we stay as long as necessary to complete the job, which includes securing the voting machines and ballots.

Lest you suppose this is a lucrative gig, in my county, the pay is $175 for the day’s work. While I haven’t checked extensively, this amount is probably typical of what counties, cities, and other localities can afford. It does not include the two or three hours of required training on setting up, operating, and securing the voting machines, the electronic poll books of registered voters, the paper ballots, and other materials. Nor does it include any time Election Officers spend on their own familiarizing themselves with changes in election laws since the last election.

Although it’s a long day for nominal pay, I’ve found it remarkably rewarding. For example, I recall one time during a midafternoon lull in an off-year election when a woman came in with her daughter, an 18-year-old first-time voter who was as nervous as anything. While I checked the poll book for the young woman’s name and address, she fidgeted, and murmured something about not messing this up. She needn’t have worried, for as it happened that year, voters had the option of using paper ballots—the kind with the ovals next to the candidates’ names that you fill in completely with a pen or pencil; no chads to punch out. Now, if there is anything a suburban 18-year-old knows how to do, it’s filling in this sort of multiple-choice sheet. Then, all she had to do was feed it into the optical scanning machine where it would be counted by the computer. As she left our precinct with a confident smile, the Election Officers burst into a round of applause.

There’s something else that always strikes me around this time of year, namely how many Americans are willing to voice their political opinions in great detail at the drop of a hat. Indeed, at times our social media seems to overflow with political opinions to the detriment of civilized discourse and intra-family harmony. Nevertheless, on balance I think these vociferous exchanges are a good thing. It means that we are not afraid to speak up. No government authorities will come after us or our families in the dead of night because of what we proclaim or write (excepting naturally those who make specific and credible threats of violence). Most of us don’t think twice about it. And why wouldn’t we take it for granted? After all, we’ve had many generations of operating under an open democracy.

Now, I’m not saying that things always come off without a hitch in the United States. To be sure, we’ve witnessed significant problems with paper ballots not all that long ago. Then too, from time to time, we hear about the fraudsters and their attempted dirty tricks. Those are newsworthy in part due to their rarity. Even in those areas of the country where the right to vote came relatively late to some segments of our society, participation may now be higher among those previously precluded from voting than among the rest of the population.

The next time we’re standing in a long line to vote, grousing about the “antiquated” technology of today’s voting machines, and wishing we could cast our ballots via smart phone instead of going to the polls on a Tuesday, here’s something to consider: The ability to cast one’s ballot is by no means a routine matter in many parts of the world. Many of us are scarcely aware of just how significant the obstacles are. We don’t stop to consider that in April of 1994, when South Africa held its first general elections marking the end of apartheid, the first election in which citizens of all races and ethnicities were permitted to participate, an estimated 20–22 million people stood in lines, some of which stretched for miles, over a two-day voting period. In the run-up to that historic election and during those two days, there were protests, bombings, and loss of life. In some areas, voting had to be extended another day. And yet, democracy did take hold. So important was the first free and fair election that April 27th is now a national holiday in South Africa.

This was by no means the only instance in which people have sought to conduct free, open, and fair elections despite the challenges presented when impoverished villages have no electricity, or when poll workers must bring in paper ballots, ballot boxes, and all the rest of the necessary apparatus via unpaved roads. Everything must be set up, the election conducted, and the ballots securely sealed against tampering before they are transported without mishap to where they are counted and preserved.

It’s hardly surprising that initial efforts at democratic elections don’t go smoothly when it’s a wholly new process for most everyone involved. Democracy is neither intuitive nor innate. It is learned. Growing up in the United States in a small town, I cannot recall when I first learned about voting, though I do know that I took it for granted for many years: Of course the polls would be open all day, and would be situated reasonably close to my home. Of course I would cast a secret ballot. Going to my precinct never involved a calculation as to personal safety. Isn’t that just the way it is everywhere?

In a word, no. Several nongovernmental organizations work diligently to promote and build sustainable democracies around the globe. Their efforts entail more than just surmounting logistical and technological challenges, more than working to ensure the integrity of the vote. Frequently, they must begin by educating the electorate and empowering everyone to participate in the electoral process, particularly women, young people, the elderly, those with disabilities, and disadvantaged minorities. The process begins well before election day and continues until the votes are counted and verified in an impartial manner.

There’s another significant consideration that I took for granted for way too long, something that was brought home to me one time I served as an Election Officer. I was sitting at the “intake table” where three of us would check in voters. We were using electronic poll books that are essentially laptops rather than those old-fashioned paper printouts where we had to use a ruler to manually draw a line through each voter’s name. Hence, the process was quicker than in years past, though we still needed to hand each verified voter a card and to direct them to the lines for the voting machines. Even so, during the lunchtime rush, there was about a fifteen-minute wait for voters to reach the front of the check-in line.

I noticed one would-be voter in line, a grim-faced woman “of a certain age” as my older relatives used to say when trying to be polite. She stood out because she was looking all around the school gymnasium as she waited and seemed to grow more apprehensive as she got closer to the head of the line. At first, I wondered if she was having trouble walking or standing. Many voters wait patiently in line notwithstanding physical ailments that are not readily apparent. As a poll worker, I’m trained to assist those with handicaps so that they can exercise their right to vote in a way that preserves the secrecy of their ballot. When it came to be this woman’s turn, I smiled and asked for her name, just as I did with everyone. She frowned as she took another long look around the school gym. The fellow behind her raised his head from his cell phone, impatient. I could see the woman coming to some sort of decision just before she recited her name and street address in an accent I couldn’t place. I verified she was on the voting rolls and gave her the card she would hand to an Election Officer standing near the voting machines. I pointed out to her the line where people were waiting to vote. She didn’t move. Instead, she peered at the voting machines, at the poll workers, at everything. Finally, she said, “Where are the police? I do not see them.”

“Police?” I had no idea what she was getting at.

“Yes, the police.” She must have seen my look of confusion. At last, suspicion faded from her face and she began to explain. “In my country, the Soviets had police stationed in the polling places. Always, always. To make sure we show up on election day, you see. They watched us. This is my first time to vote here. I became a citizen of the United States this year.”

Wow. “We don’t have police at the polls,” I told her.

The look on her face was incredible as she began to believe me and it dawned on her that nobody—nobody at all—was going to watch her cast her ballot. Nobody was going to make sure she voted the “right way.” There would be no consequences for her or her family if she voted her conscience. This woman, who was older than me, had undoubtedly cast a ballot in more elections than I had. Yet, this was the first time she had ever been free to pick whomever she wanted without personal repercussions.

She took the card from my hand and headed toward the voting machines. I didn’t see her again, as I needed to focus on checking in the people waiting, and anyway, I wouldn’t have wanted her to see me keeping my eye on her.

I think of this new citizen every time I fill out my paper work to serve as an Election Officer. I think of her every time I cast my own ballot. Most especially, I remember her reaction every time I hear or read someone saying that voting doesn’t matter or that they’re too busy to vote. I think about our fundamental right to have a say in how we are governed. It’s my hope that this election year, more citizens will act in accordance with our privilege, our duty, and our fundamental human right.

Rosemary Claire Smith worked as a campaign-finance attorney for the government for over twenty-five years before becoming a full-time author. Her science fiction and fantasy stories have sold to Analog, Fantastic Stories, Stupefying Stories, and elsewhere. They showcase her interests in space exploration, sentient aliens, genetic engineering, folklore, mythology, and especially time travel to the heyday of the dinosaurs. Rosemary has been blogging at rosemaryclairesmith.wordpress.com/blogging-the-mesozoic since 156 million years ago.

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