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Elective service

We held our city primary a month ago, and this week (on Star Wars Day, no less) conducted the general election. I worked again as a precinct inspector, which is an official term for a supply runner. Many election workers receive a two-year posting to a specific precinct; others, like me, serve in a backup role—covering gaps on demand. Sometimes I think it would be nice to receive a permanent posting, but working as a reserve inspector means that I rarely work consecutive elections at the same place. We have polling places in churches, schools, apartment complex clubhouses, union halls, and so on. Being an election official is an easy way to be a tourist in my own city.

Local elections are typically the slowest of all; this week’s turnout was just below 30%. One point of interest: the number of absentee ballots cast was almost double the in-person turnout on Election Day. I was relieved to see that, because early voting is what led to the election of my favorite at-large City Council candidate. His taking office represents a dramatic shift in the composition of the council, even if we did just swap out white men.

Since this country will never be done with COVID-19, the sanitation measures that we put into effect for last year’s presidential election continued this year. Everyone is well acquainted with the dance: out of 114 voters in our precinct, we had two without masks, and one dubiously tied bandana. Election workers are practiced at sanitizing voting booths, work tables, ballpoint pens, ballot sleeves. I imagine that—despite our hopes to the contrary—some version of this protocol will persist into next year’s midterms. That’s fine with me. As a precinct inspector, I feel as though my biggest problems involve policing all the small talk that happens as we’re moving voters through the line. The environment is homey and cordial, but often lacks what I would consider an appropriate level of professionalism for the job.

For the past few election cycles, I’ve been thinking more about whether or not I’ll continue working in this capacity. Election Day is exhausting. It has all the joys of retail customer service with the added benefit of enforcing state law. (And don’t get me started on arguments over electioneering.) But the work is rewarding. I feel an immense sense of pride every time, and being part of the election return is a special sort of high. By the time next year’s primary rolls around, I’ll probably be rested up and ready to do it all again.

Voting in the time of COVID-19

This week our state held its 2020 primary election, complete with in-person voting. Voters were scarce, though—nearly 400,000 mail-in ballots were counted statewide.

I served as a poll worker for the first time since November 2018; this week I was an inspector, overseeing two precinct sites based in the same church. State election officials had refused to postpone the primary or switch to an all-mail format as other states had done. Our county election commission scrambled to develop additional sanitation procedures and to acquire the necessary equipment. Some examples:

  • Wearing masks and gloves for reduced contact with voters
  • Providing masks to voters upon request (most wore their own)
  • Issuing ballpoint pens (non-returnable) for marking ballots
  • Wiping down voting booths and ballot sleeves after each use
  • Maintaining social distancing as much as possible

Voting booths for both precincts were set up in one common area but spaced several feet apart. We never had more than four people voting at once, which greatly simplified crowd management, much to our relief.

Overall voter turnout, including absentee ballots, was around 39%. I suppose we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see whether it was a successful test run for managing an election during a pandemic. (Side notes: between Tuesday and Wednesday, there were around 700 new COVID-19 cases statewide. There was a corresponding spike in the number of tests conducted on Wednesday. And for the past two weeks our state has been reopening: barber shops, tattoo parlors, massage therapists, churches, restaurants, salons… all with social distancing guidelines and increased occupancy restrictions.)

All of this to say I have no idea which of these configurations—wide open or tightly controlled—will win out for the November election. I suppose I’ll be there either way.