from my journal of 11/3/20 —
“Today, Election Day, is one that many of us have anticipated since 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidency in a bitter defeat for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic party, and those who feared the destabilizing leadership of someone who thrived on flouting normal standards of human decency and the political norms governing our country since its birth. A positive outcome is possible, perhaps even likely. But after the crushing disappointment of 2016, many of us are on edge. The future of the American political system is at stake, and with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging, the safety, health and well-being of millions of ordinary people.”
The edginess I described then didn’t subside until four days later when all major news outlets concluded that Joe Biden had won Pennsylvania, putting him over the needed 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Saturday, November 7 was a balmy, Indian Summer day in much of the Mid-Atlantic. It was my wife Andrea’s birthday and we’d decided to enjoy the fine weather by spending a few hours in the secluded woods of a nearby park. We’d been enjoying the sunshine and remnants of fall foliage as we sat beside a creek when she received a text message from a friend wishing her a happy birthday and congratulating us on the just-announced news of Biden’s victory. Andrea stood and let out a victory yelp, jumping up and down with unmitigated joy. I joined her in the celebration, both of us laughing and weeping tears of joy. It was the perfect birthday present, the culmination of many months of concentrated effort by us both.
Writing Letters to Infrequent Voters
Back in mid-October we had completed a voter letter-writing project we’d been working on since the spring. The project was called Vote Forward and was organized by an activist political group called Swing Left. Members of our monthly political group became interested in the letter-writing project and a number of us took the Zoom-based training and began writing. Andrea and I reached our goal of completing 500 letters each, dropping them off at our local post office on date that Vote Forward had pre-determined.
The Vote Forward project gathers lists of “infrequent voters” in mostly Democratic-leaning localities in important battleground states. It developed a form letter focusing on the importance of voting in the upcoming election. An essential element of the project is to focus on voting itself and not recommending any particular candidate or political party. We participants in the project simply hand-wrote the person’s name, a few lines of our own about why we voted in every election, and signed it. We were responsible for purchasing business envelopes and first-class stamps, and for hand-addressing each envelope to the designated recipient.
I started writing letters in April, initially in batches of five per week. I was attracted to the project because I recognized the importance I gave to any hand-addressed, first class mail that I received. I imagined myself as the recipient, curiously opening the letter with their handwritten name and address on the envelope.
Vote Forward allows you to choose which state to write to. I started with Texas and out of curiosity would use my phone’s map-application to look up the specific locality I was writing to. That helped me to better visualize who I was writing to, and also helped open in me an empathic connection with that area of the country.
I’m retired and have a lot of freedom to determine my daily schedule. As I began to enter into a positive flow with the letter-writing, I slowly increased my volume, first to batches of 20 per week, and ultimately to 40. Andrea joined me in the project in early summer, and three members of our monthly political group were also continuing to write. We encouraged one another when the work felt tedious, reminding ourselves that energy focused on the project helped to alleviate negative feelings about our current political reality.
A neighbor asked if we knew of any letter-writing campaigns and I was happy to recruit her to the Vote Forward effort. The project has been in existence for years and has gathered hard data showing that high-volume letter-writing increased turnout by multiple percentage points. Knowing the extremely close voting margins in many states in 2016 gave us added incentive to stay with the work. In addition, the project was in keeping with the greater Democratic party strategy to increase voter turnout (“We Vote, We Win!”)
Phone Banking into North Carolina
As the letter-writing campaign was winding down, I decided to turn my energies to phone banking. My friend Barbara in our political group was coordinating phone banking efforts to infrequent voters of color in North Carolina. She gave me a personal tutorial on North Carolina politics and the importance of turning out African American and Latino voters there. I was able to make calls from home using my own phone. The project was endorsed by the North Carolina NAACP which gave added credibility to our effort. As with the letter-writing, I started slowly and deliberately, limiting myself to an hour per day. I increased to two hours per day by month’s end as I found a rhythm to the work, continually refining and simplifying the script I used at the beginning of each call. This project encouraged us to leave voice messages, and a majority of my contacts involved leaving succinct, upbeat encouragements to vote.
I spent a few days at the end of October participating in a phone banking project to “cure” mail-in ballots that had been rejected by the local Boards of Election in North Carolina. Again, Barbara recruited me for this special project. The messaging mostly involved encouraging people whose mail-in ballots had been rejected to pursue in-person voting, either through Early Voting, or on Election Day itself. This was rewarding work as many people were most grateful to learn of the in-person voting alternative.
Volunteering as an Election Worker
The last election project I undertook was working as an election judge here in Montgomery County, Maryland. Back in the late spring, with the pandemic still active and Donald Trump falsely impugning the legitimacy of mail-in voting, I began feeling unsettled about the election process itself. Trump’s ongoing refusal to agree to abide by the election outcome also contributed to this. Our county had run a successful, 95% mail-in primary election in June. But for the general election, our governor was requiring more in-person voting. A majority of election judges here were seniors and most of them were opting out of the close personal contact implicit in in-person voting. I decided to take the training to become an election worker myself. Although I had my own COVID-19 concerns, my desire to make a contribution to the election process won out.
Most of the election training was online. It was rigorously detailed and took me a full day to get through it and pass the required quizzes. An in-person training was required in order to familiarize ourselves with the voting technology at the polling sites. This was a 2-hour session at a county recreation center. Elaborate COVID-19 self-protection procedures were used, and we were also instructed on how to enforce mask-wearing and physical distancing during the election.
I signed up for two days of Early Voting and for Election Day itself. The posted hours for election workers are 6am to 11pm. At 71, the prospect of working those long hours was overwhelming, but I was able to secure half-day service on each of the three days I worked. I’d decided to work as an unpaid volunteer and that seemed to help me get the half-days.
I remember the feeling of anticipatory excitement as I drove to the evening set-up session on the eve of Early Voting. Maryland was offering eight days of in-person voting just before Election Day itself. On that Sunday evening, 70 or so of us gathered to set up the election equipment in the big gymnasium at the Bohrer Park Recreation Center about three miles from our home. We got a pep-talk from a supervisor and got to meet the two Chief Judges at our site, a man and a woman, one Republican the other Democratic though we were never told which was which. The best part of the meeting was meeting some of my colleagues, most of whom were doing this for the first time. There was a healthy spirit of camaraderie and cooperation as we worked together to learn what was needed and how best to accomplish it.
My first stint was the second shift on opening day, Monday, 10/26. I reported to one of the Chief Judges at 2pm and she suggested that I roam and observe for a while to see where I was needed. In the course of the next hour, I was able to get a better sense of the discrete jobs and where I could contribute. I introduced myself to a few of my fellow workers and asked if I could shadow them for a while. They were universally happy to help me get oriented into the various jobs. I ended up spending most of my shift at the line of Ballot Marking Devices (BMD’s) arranged on long tables along the far side of the gym.
BMD’s are machines that assist the voter in making their selections, producing a narrow-printed sheet with their encoded vote. The printed sheet becomes a ballot that is then inserted into a Scanner machine which tallies the votes. My job was to orient voters to the machine and help them get started. Voters had a choice of marking paper ballots manually or using a BMD to facilitate the process. For Early Voting, the great majority of voters were choosing to use the machines. Lines often formed to wait for a free machine, and line workers pointed voters to the next available BMD.
There were six of us working the 18 BMD’s that afternoon and evening. When I first came on, it was to relieve people who needed a break. When they returned, I would relieve someone else. Two people left at 3pm in completion of the “morning” shift so I eventually had a more permanent station. I soon became proficient in the routine of politely greeting the voter and explaining how I would help them get started. We were all wearing masks, of course, and I had to remember to observe social distancing. I used an alcohol wipe to clean the table and machine surface after each voter was finished.
I enjoyed my first day because I had an opportunity to assist many different people, and also was interacting regularly with my fellow workers. We had an opportunity to chat when the lines thinned, and were always looking out for how we could help each other to streamline the process. After voting ended at 8pm, three of us who had worked together for the last hours gathered to compare notes and socialize. One was a corporate consultant, the other an experienced chef, both of them, like me, looking to make a civic contribution. None of us had previous experience as election workers, but we bonded nicely in working together. I left that night with a feeling of community and accomplishment. I was also exhausted from being on my feet for so many hours and was glad that my next shift was not until Friday.
I set my alarm for 5am on Friday in order to arrive at Bohrer Park by 6. When I arrived, I ran into many of the same workers I’d met earlier. Some were working for the full 8-day extent of Early Voting, eager to get the $100/day bonus that came with that commitment. I also talked with a state employee who said she was working the election in lieu of her regular state job, earning personal leave time as well as the $180/day stipend that the Board of Elections offered. Given the grueling hours, it was well earned.
That Friday was the 5th day of Early Voting and the number of voters was much smaller than the 1st day. Bohrer Park was one of only 11 sites available for Early Voting in our large county. But early reports indicated that 50% of the vote in our county was coming in via mail-in ballots. In any event, my early shift that day was considerably slower paced. I worked for a couple of hours at the initial voter-greeting table, looking up voters in the a computer “pollbook”, verifying their name, address and birthdate, and printing out a small slip of paper called a Voter Activation Card (VAC), which they signed and I initialed. The VAC was initialed by another worker at either the ballot table (for getting paper ballots) or at the BMV. A final worker initial was placed at the Scanning Device (SD) and the VAC was carefully stored there as the voter left. The SD worker collected the VAC’s in bundles of 25, and regularly verified the number collected with the SD’s indication of ballots scanned.
My hearing and vision are not the best, so I asked to be relieved at the pollbook and took up an opening at one of the SD’s. I’d trained briefly in that job on Monday. It was pretty straightforward, collecting the VAC from each voter as they approached and guiding them to insert either their hand-marked ballot or electronically generated ballot from a BMD. After the ballots were scanned into the machine, a verifying message was displayed, confirming that the vote had been registered. I initialed each VAC and wrote the SD number on it as well, carefully placing it an envelope. Every hour or so, I’d count the VAC’s and use a paperclip to bundle them into groups of 25. Being a slow day, I had the opportunity to chat with my colleagues operating SD’s near mine. One was a 17-year-old high school student who was earning some required volunteer credits that day. She was eagerly planning to be a political science student in college and was excited at participating in real election work.
For Election Day itself, I had to attend another preliminary meeting for setup and orientation. This time I was assigned to Magruder High School, about 2 miles from our home. I had communicated with one of the Chief Judges there the previous week in order to secure a half-day, volunteer position. She was an older, experienced election judge who shared with me her own dilemma about working during the pandemic. We were united in our discernment that it was worth the risk.
I worked the second shift on Election Day, starting at 2pm and ending about an hour after the polls closed at 8pm. It was even slower than it had been on my second shift at Early Voting. I worked primarily at a Scanner Device again, taking over for a high school student who left at 3. He was a junior at the high school with a particular interest in computer scientist. More interestingly, he was from Indonesia and had come to the U.S. with his older brother in order to further their educations. I was taken with his immigrant story, and with his desire to participate in a U.S. presidential election. Later in the day, I met an American-born man whose parents had emigrated from Bangladesh in the 1980’s. He was a very successful business consultant who wanted to give back as a volunteer election worker.
In the three days I worked, I was impressed by the orderliness of the process, and the high level of cooperation among election workers and voters alike. There were a few people who couldn’t or wouldn’t wear masks and they were able vote outside in the presence of a Chief Judge. One woman on Election Day refused to wear a mask and threatened retribution by getting her lawyer on the phone. A Chief Judge calmly talked her down and the woman left. There were a few instances when a judge had to remind a voter to keep their mask over both nose and mouth. These were all met with compliance.
I decided to write this account as an affirmation of the concerted effort that many of us have made to maintain our country’s democratic traditions, the most precious of which is voting. As Donald Trump continues to malign the integrity of the election and refuses to concede, I want to stand up for all the thousands of people who worked so diligently to uphold an electoral process that Trump prefers to trample on (unless he wins, of course).
Andrea and I started our small political group after the 2016 election because we understood that we could no longer take for granted the democratic institutions that we’d inherited. With President-elect Biden’s victory, we know that our work is far from complete, but that we now have a chance to move forward. The shared energy and enthusiasm of the 2020 election are spurring us on to continue our work. We’re engraving the recent memories of unfettered jubilation when it became clear that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were ultimately victorious.
We call our group “For The Common Good”. It’s an affirmation that, as citizens, we need to rise above our purely personal comforts and interests to work with others towards shared goals. Participating in this communal political effort has helped us to remain focused, purposeful, and committed through some very dark times. And we trust that it will continue to keep us together through the challenges ahead.
November 23, 2020