Confessions of an Election Worker: ‘I didn’t steal anything. I counted votes.’ Part 1

Once upon a time in Cincinnati, I got to hang out on a witness stand for 10 minutes getting cross-examined by an attorney. He was trying to undermine the credibility of someone on whose behalf I was testifying.

The attorney wondered whether this person, a student at Large Midwestern Technical College, where I was an adviser (my job title was something else, but that was basically what I did), had manipulated the system to earn a 3.5-plus grade-point average and academic recognition over the course of several semesters.  

“It’s not possible,” I said. “There are too many moving parts.” My simple explanation of the volume and scope of the work involved to pull that off satisfied him enough to back him off. 

Would that people who are sure that the loser of the 2020 presidential election actually won but it was “stolen” could satisfied as easily.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially because this April will mark the first anniversary of my becoming an election worker. Everyone concerned about election fraud should sign up to work an election. Not so you’ll decide there’s no such thing as election fraud or stolen elections. It’s because working an election will give you an informed perspective from which to declaim about election fraud and election theft. Selfishly speaking, that will be far more interesting. 

An orange cone with the sign "Election staff only beyond this point"  and election workers lining up to run ballot envelopes through the opener.
Become an election worker and go beyond this point! The workers behind the cone are slicing open ballot envelopes by running them through the slicing machine which makes a high-pitched whirring sound when it’s on. In April, the ballots were pre-opened but after that, they remained sealed until we opened them to do the counting.

I became an election worker because of the pandemic. We had a presidential primary and a State Supreme Court election on the April ballot. When everything shut down in mid-March, no one knew how anything was going to go. But since the combined age of our city’s pollworkers was somewhere in the neighborhood of 46,800 (180 polling places x 4 pollworkers in each with an average age of 65 – lots of whom were People of Color) and the pandemic was disproportionally affecting older people & People of Color, there was going to be a significant need for pollworkers. 

I am not old. But I am also not young. I signed up to work at Central Count, processing absentee ballots, figuring that would be better than working a polling site. I also applied for absentee ballots for Sweetheart and myself on the theory that limited exposure was the best thing we could do for ourselves and our community. Our options were to keep receiving absentee ballots until we walked back into our polling place and voted; or get ballots for the upcoming election and reapply going forward. With no clue as to how long the pandemic would persist, combined with our talent for forgetting things, I chose the “keep sending ‘em” option, commonly known as “indefinitely confined.”

We weren’t “indefinitely confined.” We were “indefinitely responsible.” Voting absentee was a common sense and public safety issue. And we would have provided ID if it were requested.

Then came April. It was dumb of Tony Evers to wait until the last minute to try and make it an all-absentee affair. It was criminal of the Republican-led legislature to prevent it. My adult daughters were horrified that I was counting ballots. I wrote about it in an earlier post, which you can read here.

In August, there was another primary, and I counted ballots again. That one went more smoothly – there was no long line to get in at Central Count. But ballot boxes were installed at all the libraries, and those boxes were emptied until 8 p.m., when the polls closed. So we were counting until past midnight. 

Then came November. We all knew it was going to be a long one. I’d done counting in April and August. When the email asking if anyone wanted to train as a tabulator arrived, I jumped at the opportunity to learn something new. 

At the tabulating stations, we ran the counted ballots through the tabulator. Our machines sorted the ballots into three trays. The bottom tray was always the one with the biggest pile. Those were easily read by the machine and could be bagged. Ballots in the other two piles got looked at by hand and dealt with as appropriate.

A ballot tabulator operating and counting and sorting the ballots.
Note the top left, with the ballots going into the tabulator and the scoop where the ballots are being fed into the three trays.

The middle tray contained ballots where someone had chosen a write-in candidate. We had a list of registered write-in candidates; if the name was on the list, we noted it. If it wasn’t, we didn’t. Those ballots were also counted by the machine and bagged after the write-in check. Pretty straightforward. (Jesus and Tupac were not registered write-in candidates. Kanye was.)

Ballots in the top tray were not counted. Reasons might be an “overvote,” (two ovals for the same candidate marked strongly enough to confuse the machine) an “undervote,” (no ovals filled out for a candidate) a ballot with a rip or a wrinkle or one filled out correctly but in which the voter had been sent a ballot for the wrong ward. Sometimes you could get the machine to read a ripped ballot by taping it and a wrinkled one by smoothing it out. 

With an overvoted ballot, two election workers try to determine voter intent. Generally, that is pretty easy. For example, if Mickey Mouse and Goofy are both running for the same position and a voter fills in the oval for Mickey. But they accidentally started to fill in the Goofy oval. There’s a tiny mark in the Goofy spot and a completed circle next to Mickey. That’s pretty clear. If a situation arises where two people can’t make the determination, you ask someone else and keep going until you have consensus on voter intent. One person cannot make that call on their own. 

In cases where you have a situation where the machine couldn’t count the ballot, you get a fresh ballot and do a “reconstructed” ballot. Again, two people work together. One reads the chosen candidates on the original ballot, the other fills out the new one, including the original voter number on top of the ballot. There is a section on the bottom of both forms where the election official initials and assigns the Reconstructed Ballot its own number (“ROB-1,” “ROB-2,” etc.). Then, on a form called the GAB-104, you record the ROB number and the reason you reconstructed it. The original ballot goes into the envelope with the GAB 104, along with the ward list and the voter number log. 

Two election workers reconstructing a ballot.
This is what it looks like when you reconstruct a ballot. The dark-haired woman is reading off the voter’s choices and the blonde woman is recording them.

The reconstructed ballots then go back through the machine, where they’re counted. There’s a setting on the machine to put through the under-voted ballots. They’re included in the vote tally because someone voted, even if they omitted a particular race and any races for which they did cast ballots (sometimes a voter doesn’t fill out anything) are counted. 

At the end of the night, the ballot bags are sealed and signed and dated (with the time noted) by two election officials.

It’s a pretty involved process. Election Commission staff are moving back and forth between people with questions, and on November 3, they were doing press conferences between answering questions and doing whatever else they were doing.

People seated at tables counting votes; a woman with a fan raised at a table to indicate she has a question.
The woman on the right with the fan over her head has a question. There were fans at all the tables so that if someone had a question about a particular issue that came up, they could raise their fan and the election official assigned to that group of tables would come over and answer it.

There were a fair number of election observers. There were also multiple cameras live-streaming the count, so you could watch from anywhere. I was grateful for that and the on-site observers were a pretty respectful lot.

A live-streaming camera setup for the November 3 election and an election observer is seated to the right.
This is one of the cameras that were located throughout the 80,000-square foot room where the absentee ballots were being counted. That’s an election observer on the right.

It was a very long day. We started counting at 7. I was there until 3:15 a.m. on the 4th, when the count was done and Claire (the executive director of the Election Commission) left to bring the certified count to the courthouse. She was followed out by a scrum of media types with cameras. Evidently one of the flash drives was left in a voting machine and retrieved, but that room was full of people and cameras. We, the Tabulators, We the Vote Counters, We the Election Officials, were oblivious to the cameras and deeply involved our individual pieces of making sure everything was done properly.

This is blurry, but this is a shot of the media following Claire to the elevator at 3 a.m. on November 4.

Inside of three weeks, we were handed the opportunity for a reality-check on whether, in fact, everything had been done properly when the Trump Campaign paid $3 million for a recount. 

A large, empty room with tables set up and a fabric barrier between some chairs and the rest of the room where the tables are situated.
Scene of the recount……

To be continued…

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