An Election Without Chaos Will Be a Miracle

This year, I trained to work at the polls. I’m sure I’ll screw up.

An illustration of a guard dog with a small voting booth on its head
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Judith Shulevitz is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. She is working on a book for the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series.

My poll-worker training in Greene County, New York, consisted of two two-and-a-half-hour training sessions, held in an unventilated room in a senior drop-in center, where a lot of masks had fallen below noses. At one point, we abandoned all pretense of social distancing to practice using the voting machines. Come November 3, our charge will be to administer the most basic level of the democratic process. We will be, you could say, the guardians of democracy.

We were paid $60 for the training. We’ll be paid $225 for the 16 and a half hours we’ll work on Election Day, at polling locations I suspect won’t be perfectly COVID-compliant.

But I’m not in it for the money, and I’ve got an N95 mask, gloves, a face shield, and five canisters of FDA-approved wipes. I’m up for the risk. I signed up for this. I’m glad I did. It has helped me appreciate the labyrinthine weirdness of our nation’s electoral system—and the importance of reforming it.

Over the summer, the call had gone out: The nation needed poll workers to prevent mass disenfranchisement during the pandemic. Activists and celebrities (Trevor Noah, LeBron James) were doing their utmost to glamorize a job previously perceived as duller than certified public accounting and correctly associated with retirees. Of the roughly 1 million people who ran polling stations in 2016, about two-thirds were 61 or older. Unlike in other nations, Election Day is not a holiday, and a fully employed person might be hard-pressed to take it off. But this year, the elderly were not too eager to serve, for obvious reasons.

Their absence was felt during the primaries, when polling stations closed and lines lengthened all over the country, even as President Donald Trump tried to sow doubt about the legality of mail-in voting and courts imposed or upheld regulations that made it more difficult. In Anchorage, Alaska, 95 percent of the city’s usual poll workers had backed out by the summer. Maryland’s board of elections told the governor in July that it was short 14,000 poll workers. The same story repeated itself elsewhere, and the shortage was sometimes used as one excuse among others to shut down several polling places.

The good news is that the poll-worker recruitment campaign is going better than expected. The organization Power the Polls alone has logged more than 650,000 sign-ups, according to its co-founder Erika Soto Lamb, the vice president for social impact at Viacom (where she works closely with MTV and Comedy Central, both involved with Power the Polls). The less good news is that, as Nathaniel Persily, an election-law expert at Stanford University, cautioned me, fewer workers will actually show up. Those who do will lack experience. The job is more demanding than I had thought, calling upon a surprising number of technical, legal, and social skills.

Until this year, all I’d noticed about poll workers is that they flip through registration books, check signatures, direct people to tables, and hand out ballots. But that’s just part of the job. Poll workers open and close polling stations, set up complex machines (optical scanners or touch-screen devices) at 5:30 in the morning and take them apart late at night. In Greene County, we’ll be resealing our optical scanners with color-coded zip ties to ensure the integrity of the paper ballots stored inside. God help us if we use the wrong color. Before the voting begins, we’ll have to learn to interpret error messages so that we can explain them to voters; if the screen flashes cross party endorsement, for instance, it means the voter mistakenly voted more than once by selecting the same candidate on multiple party lines. If the devices jam, we can troubleshoot or wait for the tech people to show up. Poll workers determine whether a voter should receive a provisional, rather than regular, ballot. They are required to challenge a voter who they know or suspect is not legally entitled to vote. Poll workers report how many people voted but don’t tally up the votes cast for each candidate; that’s the responsibility of a separate canvassing board.

Most important, though, a poll worker is the face of the electoral process; her body language, tone of voice, and level of competence shapes voter experience. Fumbling or nasty poll workers can drive people away and undermine faith in the system. When voters reach the front of the line, election inspectors check them in, sometimes on paper, sometimes on iPads loaded with new software (that’s what I’ll have). Long check-ins make voters irritable, lengthen wait times, and depress participation: A 2014 presidential commission on election administration determined that a wait longer than a half hour was likely to send voters home. This spring, Atlantans had to wait up to five hours to vote in a primary staffed by more new poll workers than ever before (the consolidation of stations and social-distancing rules added to the chaos). “You have to have tough skin to be a poll worker, because there’s a lot of angry people, and rightfully so,” one poll worker and recruiter told the Associated Press.

Bungle a seemingly minor task, and you might change the vote count. Poll workers must send voters to the table assigned to their precinct. Misdirect them, and they might wind up marking the wrong ballots, which will then be thrown out, or using provisional ballots, which aren’t counted unless voters are found to be eligible (that happens with only about a third of ballots). In a famous 2011 case in Ohio, Hunter v. Hamilton County Board of Elections, an election for a local judge hinged on a small number of provisional ballots; a batch of them were provisional solely because a poll worker couldn’t tell an odd house number from an even one and sent people to the wrong table.

The growing complexity of, and frequent changes in, federal, state, and local election laws adds to the likelihood that poll workers will err—and laws have been shifting kaleidoscopically all over the country to accommodate the pandemic. Some states require voters to show IDs, but poll workers aren’t always sure which kinds qualify. Conversely, poll workers have been known to demand IDs even when their state specifically forbids them to. “Guarantees of voter rights are essential,” Persily told me, “but if they don’t get operationalized in the polling place, they’re meaningless.”

Niggling rules can make you feel complicit in voter suppression. I learned during my training that voters may drop off absentee ballots at polling stations—any station in their electoral jurisdiction will do—which is definitely a good thing. But woe betide the New York voter who seals the absentee ballot envelope with tape! It will be thrown out. (Other states incorporate tape into the sealing process.) Our trainer explained New York’s rationale: Tape raises the possibility that an envelope was opened and its vote changed. I haven’t buttonholed New Yorkers to find out whether they’re aware of the rule, but it seems a good guess that the knowledge isn’t general. I’m still not sure whether we’re supposed to tell voters to peel off the tape and lick the envelope shut, or just take it, knowing it won’t count.

I am sure that I will screw up. I’ll misfile ballots, failing to put affidavits (New York–ese for provisional ballots) in the orange bag, absentee ballots in the green bag, and unscannable ballots in the red bag. I’ll just have to hope that the good folks back at the board of elections will count them anyway. I’ll forget how to spoil a ballot (that is, invalidate it so a voter can vote again), punch the wrong button during check-in and have to start all over again, or mix up the error messages on the machine and be forced to consult the handbook. Feet will tap.

Luckily—or, as it might turn out, unluckily—I’ll be backstopped. A Republican will be sitting next to me at the table. Many states, including New York, try to ensure that both major parties have poll workers present. Certified partisan poll watchers will be sitting near or behind me. In other words, plenty of people will be on hand to scrutinize my every move. I hope they help, rather than get in my way. The Trump campaign says it has marshaled 50,000 Republican poll watchers, and some election experts fear they’ll interfere to a degree not seen before. For instance, they could lodge mass challenges during both the voting and the counting, as Benjamin L. Ginsberg, who co-chaired the 2014 presidential commission, recently warned in a Washington Post op-ed.

If irregularities arise at check-in—an inactive registration, a voter at the wrong polling place, a changed name or address—I’m supposed to call the board of elections. When I heard this, I was stunned. What if no one picks up the phone? Here was a surefire bottleneck. Persily, however, assured me that it was better than the alternative. The board of elections has access to statewide databases and might be able to solve problems that could otherwise result in affidavits.

The United States has the most confusing electoral system in the developed world. Richard Hasen, an election expert at UC Irvine, and the author of several critiques of American voting, told me that we’re “hyper-decentralized,” an artifact of our history as the oldest continuous democracy. According to the Government Accountability Office, there are more than 10,000 electoral jurisdictions in the country. (A jurisdiction is any area granted the power to administer elections; it might be as big as a state or as small as a town.) States pass laws that differ from state to state, while local jurisdictions implement them. Election boards may design their own ballots, set up their own registration procedures, devise their own ways of counting votes. You might say that America isn’t holding one election; it’s holding more than 10,000.

Other industrialized countries have standardized their voting processes. In most nations, for instance, there is only one ballot, at least for national elections. Our maximally individualized electoral structures have a clear advantage: They’re harder for a would-be dictator to hijack. The clear disadvantage is that our polling places are nigh impossible to monitor. Ron Laufer, who often observes elections with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, told me that the extraordinary diversity of polling methods in the U.S. makes it difficult to send out enough monitors.

Training is also left up to local officials, and is wildly spotty. “One of the signal weaknesses of the system of election administration in the United States is the absence of a dependable, well-trained trained corps of poll workers,” the 2014 presidential commission reported. Instruction lasts, on average, two and a half hours, and many poll workers skip it. But proficient workers are scarce for other reasons too. Officials were struggling to attract and retain them even before the pandemic. Poll work is hard, undercompensated, and uncelebrated, with a too-limited pool of recruits. The commission recommended several steps to address these issues: First, have states establish training standards that include, among other requirements, some immersion in the state’s voting laws, so that poll workers don’t turn away eligible voters or erroneously give out provisional ballots. Second, enlist students, including high schoolers as young as 16, by reframing the experience as a hands-on civic education. (Many states now allow minors to staff polling places, although, as I learned when my teenage daughter tried to sign up, they have to plow through a lot of paperwork.) And third, encourage private and public employers to create programs that recognize employees who do their patriotic duty on Election Day, and make sure that every state gives them the day off without penalty.

I’m skeptical of the employer-based solution: The private sector, in particular, has rarely shown an appetite for paying workers not to show up, unless forced to do so by law. Instead, I’d suggest, as have many before me, that we move local elections to weekends and declare national elections federal holidays. This reform would also improve voter turnout, which might be why it has never attracted bipartisan support.

Whatever the outcome of this strange election, though, our state of heightened alert should have one happy consequence: We’ll pay closer attention to the men and women on the front lines of America’s daunting voting system.