I have been called a lot of things in my life. A “Gatekeeper of Democracy” is the most recent and also, my new favorite. It sounds like something James Earl Jones ought to bellow or a sort of mythical figure that should don a cape. But in reality, it’s just a fancy job description for a Fairfax County Election Officer.
As you know, Fairfax County just held a General Election on Tuesday, Nov. 8. Approximately 3,000 election officers were needed to staff the county’s 239 precincts. About a week prior to the election, I learned that the county was still short nearly 2,000 volunteers. Curious about the behind-the-scenes process and—eternally in search of a good story—I decided to throw my hat into the ring.
I applied online at the county webpage and hesitated only slightly when I read, “The hours are long, the pay is low, but your contribution is enormous.” I hit “send” on my application and literally, within 10 minutes, received a phone call in response. The woman who followed up went over the job responsibilities and kept reiterating that I’d have to be at the polls at 5 a.m. I assured her that wasn’t a deal-breaker for me so she scheduled me for a two-hour (1-3 p.m.), group training session at the Fairfax County Government Center the Saturday before the election.
She told me to arrive by 12:15 so I could fill out paperwork and cast my absentee ballot since she couldn’t guarantee I’d get assigned to my voting precinct. I showed up as directed and filled out a form to vote in absentia. On it, I was asked for my rationale for doing so. I marked, “Election Officer.” When I turned in my form to the woman who processed it, she glanced at my annotation and said, “Bless you. That’s our favorite reason for an absentee vote.”
Precisely at 1:00 p.m. our trainer commented to the handful of us that were in the room, “I am big on punctuality but considering that this room is supposed to be three-fourths of the way full and we are nowhere near that mark, I am going to wait about 10 more minutes until we begin.” She started back up at 1:10. People brazenly continued to straggle in throughout the first hour of her presentation.
The most egregious offenders were two ladies who arrived at 2:05 p.m. …with McDonald’s cups in their hands! Their audacity had me doing a slow burn so I can only imagine what the trainer must have been thinking. She motioned them towards the front row since no other seats remained available. Even though they sat directly in front of her, their eyes hung at half-mast and their heads bobbed as they blatantly faded in and out of sleep.
Their final affront came when they tried to sneak out early. Thankfully, the trainer was astute and managed to preempt their escape. She motioned to a co-worker to follow them out. The ladies never returned so it appeared they were sent packing. Hopefully, anyhow, as it would be a sad commentary if Fairfax County was that desperate for election officers.
The training itself was interesting, straight-forward and user-friendly. We were handed a 25-page booklet and given an accompanying Powerpoint presentation. We also received a hands-on orientation to all of the voting machines. Everything revolved around the mission to, “ensure the integrity and security of the voting process.”
Much of the information in the session was administrative and covered questions like:
Hours of work? We were told to arrive at the polling place no later than 5 a.m. and that we’d have to remain until all work had been completed, usually by 10:00 PM. We would not be able to leave the polling place during the election.
My shift ended up lasting from 5 AM till 9 PM. And I did get assigned to my actual voting precinct. I later found out that half-day shifts were also available. At my precinct, a husband and wife shared a shift, but all the others worked a full shift.
Attire? Business casual but no jeans, t-shirts or sweatshirts were allowed. Patriotic colors were encouraged, but we couldn’t wear anything partisan or that endorsed a particular candidate. Comfortable footwear and layers were stressed since most of the polling places would be in schools notorious for erratic heating/cooling systems.
I briefly considered my Ovechkin jersey since it was the most patriotic thing in my closet, in terms of colors. But better judgment, in the form of black slacks and a sweater, prevailed. I accessorized with whimsical red, white and blue nails that my 12 year-old daughter both, suggested and painted, for me.
What to bring along? Finger foods, snacks and drinks (absolutely no alcohol) in a personal cooler…and enough to last the whole day. Reading materials and any needed medication was also suggested.
I brought a cooler of items and some reading material but later cursed myself for not having had the foresight to have unloaded all of our extra Halloween candy on the crowds. During my shift, I got a text from my sister in CT. She was tickled by one of her precinct election officers (all on the north side of 70 in years) who was handing out hard butterscotch candies from a crystal dish.
Compensation? Election officers would get paid $100 for the day. During training our instructor said, "All we ask is that you not divide the number of hours you actually work into that." Checks are sent out roughly 4-5 weeks after the election and the income is taxable.
Job Responsibilities? We all would assist with set-up and clean-up and rotate through a variety of assignments throughout the day. All election officers would take their marching orders from the chief officer and assistant chief officer at their precinct.
I, along with six other election officers, one chief officer and one assistant chief officer, helped assemble and disassemble voting equipment (per very detailed and specific instructions—one of us would have to read from the manual while the other carried out the procedures, there were many safeguards and checks and balances in place to prevent any sort of fraud from occurring); put up/took down signage; manned the polling books and checked voters in; processed voters into the electronic voting machines by way of a key card bracelet I had to wear on my wrist; supervised the “optical scan officer” (paper voting booth); distributed, “I Voted” stickers; and finally, supported the chief officer at the end of the night in collecting and annotating all of the polling information on the SOR (Statement of Results).)
On Election Day itself, there were a few other random things that I learned and/or that stood out for me:
- Both the Republican and Democratic parties assigned poll workers to each precinct. They sat behind the election officers who were manning the polling books at check-in. The poll workers carried logs of all of their party’s registered voters. They recorded the people who checked in to vote and marked their names off in their party directories. The poll workers departed around mid-day and started calling all of the people in their books who hadn’t voted yet in an attempt to rally them to still come out.
- Candidates running for office could talk to voters at the precincts, but they had to remain a requisite 40 feet away from the polling entrance. Candidates could enter the polling area to vote, but they couldn’t solicit voters inside. Two candidates—Gerry Hyland and Tim McGhee—went above and beyond by actually entering the polling place with the sole purpose of thanking the volunteers who had come out to support the election. I was impressed by the gesture.
- A voter’s vote didn’t count until the red “VOTE” button got pushed. If a voter left the electronic voting station without having pushed the final button, election officers had to negate their vote. We weren’t allowed to push the button on a voter’s behalf. People who took off too soon were called “fleers”. I didn’t have any fleers on my watch but my precinct had one at the end of the day. I actually preempted two fleers from occurring and was able to nab both voters in time and have them return to finalize their ballots to ensure their votes would count.
- It was nice to see a lot of parents voting with their kids in tow. Technically, the registered voter is the only one allowed to be at the voting station and touch the screen. In fact, anyone requiring any sort of assistance in the voting process had to fill out a “Request for Assistance” form prior to casting their vote. But concessions seemed to be made for kids, especially in allowing them to push the final “VOTE” button. Yuckily though, I noted many kids, unbeknownst to their parents (who were engrossed in voting), alternating their fingers between their noses/mouths and the touch screen.
In its entirety, Election Day was long yet went surprisingly fast. At my precinct (Fort Hunt Elementary School), we had a steady flow of voters with peaks occurring during the before and after work periods and also right around 10 a.m. I enjoyed learning more about the electoral process and it was also fun to socialize with neighbors and friends who I hadn’t seen in awhile.
Most of the voters were pleasant although we did encounter a few who were frustrated by redistricting and who showed up at the wrong polling station. We also had one woman ask us to check if her ex-husband had voted. He had moved from the state, and she wanted to make sure he hadn’t snuck back to vote. He hadn’t.
My favorite voter comment of the day came from a spry, elderly gentleman who was there during one of the peaks and therefore, had to endure a short line. While waiting in the queue, he leaned over to me and joked, "This was so much faster the first five times I did it."
Evidently, he didn’t realize he was talking to a Gatekeeper of Democracy.