This blog serves as the first in a series by McCain Institute Democracy Programs Junior Fellow Brad Singer looking at the administrative efforts that go into running American elections. In the coming weeks, he will interview the municipal, county, and state officials that ensure and facilitate American democracy. As an introductory account, this first installment will relate to his personal experiences as a poll manager in Aiken, S.C. Further blog posts will consist of interviews at increasing levels of authority to present a better picture of those “behind the ballot box.”
Every other November, my family engages in a cherished tradition. Packing a van full of signage, a sealed lockbox of blank ballots, and an electronic voter roll, we wake up at 4 a.m. to drive to the junior high school that serves as Aiken County Voting Precinct 71. Arriving 2.5 hours before the polls officially open at 7 a.m., our foursome scurries about the facilities, making the necessary preparations.
Roughly 30 minutes before doors open, the first poll watchers arrive to supervise us break the seals, switch on the ballot marking and counting devices, and take the solemn oath to preserve and protect both the South Carolina and United States Constitutions (administered by the clerk, alternatingly my mother or father). As the clock strikes 7 a.m., civil pandemonium ensues. The early crowd, hoping to vote before work and impatiently waiting in the queue, looks on as my brother and I take photo identification cards, enter names into the electronic tablet voter roll, and print their ballots. As they collect the long paper rectangle, my mother leads them to the markers, and my father oversees the placing in the counting machine. He hands out that year’s “I Voted” sticker as they file out.
Despite careful preparation, unforeseen problems inevitably arise. In one election, the online roll couldn’t connect to the internet, forcing a resort to the backup paper list. In another, the extension cord for the marking machines failed, leading to the temporary use of provisional ballots. While 95 of every 100 voters exercise their franchise without incident, the five outliers often create momentary crises that necessitate considered yet prompt action. While some issues are as minor as asking the county election commission to update voter information, more complex situations often arise.
Under South Carolina law, no campaign paraphernalia may come within 500 feet of a polling place. While many individuals unknowingly violate the rule and amicably remove the offending hat or button, other voters chafe at the regulation. One even went so far as to swear at and shove past my younger brother before being stopped by my father and an offer to call the police. Other tense situations originated when I asked citizens to lower their masks during COVID-19 to verify their identity or when uncredentialed and self-appointed “poll watchers” attempted to film people as they marked their ballots. An absurd case materialized when a woman aggressively accused us of voter suppression when the yard signs marking the entrance blew over on a windy day.
Despite these challenges, which are not unlike the regular experiences of hundreds of thousands of other poll workers, our small team fulfills both the spirit and the letter of the law when sealing the ballot box and signing our names to the precinct tally. Returning the equipment to the county offices, the long day concludes well after sunset.
From poll workers and county clerks to election commissions and secretaries of state, securing fair and accessible contests requires a monumental effort. In succeeding blog posts, I will explore these rarely recognized efforts made in preparation and attempt to appreciate those servants “behind the ballot box.”