Poll observing

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We left our house in San Diego at 3:00 a.m. (“and that means a 1:45 wake-up, ladies!”) so that my seven housemates, who were all assigned to three different Las Vegas polling locations spaced 20 minutes apart, could all be on time for our 8:30 start.

My roommate Charlotte and I arrived at our location, a Target parking lot, at 7:30 and quickly located the large white tent with an American flag by the entrance. While we waited, we reviewed our instructions from the DNC. Our job for the day would be to protect against voter suppression and eliminate obstacles that might hinder potential voters from voting.

Through an online platform called LBJ, we would be able to report any incidents we witnessed — be it broken machines, poll-worker malpractice, or inattention to COVID-19 safety regulations — and receive guidance about how to proceed. If anyone left the polling tent without casting their vote, we were to follow them out past the concrete barrier demarcating the 10-foot line, at which point we were allowed to speak to voters, and ask them why they didn’t vote. Usually this would lead to logging an incident report with their contact information in LBJ. We also were assigned a “boiler room” contact who would text us 30 minutes before voting opened so that we could ask questions and receive updates throughout the day.

When other poll workers had arrived, we walked up to the tent and introduced ourselves as observers from the DNC. The poll workers stationed by the door directed us inside one of the “leads,” a knowledgable and slightly imposing man named Lewis, who pointed out the three other head poll workers we would be allowed to communicate with for the entirety of our shift. We initially sat down in two foldout chairs spaced apart within a rectangular, taped-off section of the tent positioned next to its entrance and about 10 feet away from the check-in stations. At 8:30, however, Lewis approached our chairs with a young woman and asked us which party we were affiliated with. After we responded “DNC,” Lewis explained that the woman was an observer from the GOP who would need to sit in one of the chairs at all times to equalize the party representation. Consequently, Charlotte and I would switch off sitting inside the polling tent and standing outside by the 100-foot line.

I offered to start the rotation outside and quickly found two other volunteers, a man and a woman, clad in orange “observer” name tags matching mine, as well as black “Protect the Vote” T-shirts. They introduced themselves as non-partisan observers from the ACLU tasked with a similar mission of eliminating voter suppression. The woman, a blonde 30-year-old with heart-shaped sunglasses, remarked that the day had been pretty uneventful thus far, and I asked what kinds of issues they had dealt with poll observing previously. Tim, who wore cone-shaped black stud earrings and a Star Wars baseball cap, jumped into a story from the prior week about how police officers from the Vegas police department had been instructed (by nameless “higher-ups,” according to one police officer) to drive by the polling station once every hour. Each time Tim, concerned about voters being intimidated by the police presence, spotted a police car he would ask them, politely, if there was any problem. They would usually end up leaving after the conversation, but in the next hour or so a different police officer would drive by, usually further away than the previous one, as if testing some sort of boundaries.

One officer, however, walked directly up the tent and through the 100-foot line, refusing to feign covertness. Tim asked for his name and badge number, which he then reported to the local police department. That same day he was put in touch with the county commissioner who thanked him for reporting the situation and asked him to let him know directly if there were any other problems. Tim never found out who had ordered the officers to drive by the polling station.

Throughout our conversation, the female ACLU observer had greeted each voter exiting the polling tent with a bright smile and the exclamation, “Thank you for voting! Have a great day.” Some of the voters would avoid eye contact or mutter something unintelligible, but others would reciprocate the sentiment by thanking her for observing. She later explained that this reciprocation allowed her to strike up conversations with voters who seemed interested in chatting, granting her better insight into their experiences voting. Sure enough, she ended up talking to more voters than any other observer I interacted with that day. I tried to copy her but always came across somehow more timid.

When I was inside I wasn’t allowed to speak to voters. This disadvantage, though, was offset by the superior vantage point over the voting process itself. I logged my most important report of the day inside the tent after I heard the poll worker in the check-in station closest to me consistently asking voters for ID. In Nevada, only same-day registration voters, voters casting provisional ballots and voters whose signatures did not match the system need ID to vote. After adding the issue to LBJ, my boiler room contact Sam instructed me to report the issue in-person to a team leader. Nervously, I flagged down a lead named Trevor and tried to avoid eye contact as he spoke to the poll worker I had indicated.

After a few minutes, Trevor walked back up to me and explained that the woman whom the poll worker had asked for ID was a same-day voter. Timid yet insistent, I clarified that I had heard her ask for ID multiple times in a row and that she had done so directly after the voters selected their language preference, the first question on the check-in machine, without any other interaction taking place. He spoke to the poll worker again, this time for even longer. Afterward, I didn’t hear her ask for ID again. I doubt the rule breach was intentional — it’s easier for poll workers to search voter names in the database based on ID rather than verbally through masks — but, nevertheless, the unnecessary question could cause a voter to believe IDs are required.

In addition to the proximity to the polling process, I loved watching the voters inside and sometimes tried to figure out what or who had drawn them to the polls that day. Sometimes it was obvious; the 20-year-old in the “Latinos for Trump” baseball cap made no secret of who he was casting his ballot for (due to the “no electioneering in the 100-foot zone” rule, he actually was asked to take off his hat while inside the tent). In other cases, however, guessing presented more of a challenge.

At around 2:00 p.m., Melissa, a DNC observer and retired civil rights lawyer, arrived. Now that there were three of us in rotation around the one DNC observer chair inside, Charlotte and I sometimes observed outside together while Melissa sat inside. We were in this stage of the rotation when a woman asked Charlotte to take a picture of her, her mother and her two-year-old daughter in front of the polling tent. After Charlotte gave her the phone back, she expressed concern that she had only been able to vote provisionally, rather than registering the same day as she had originally hoped. Because she had moved to Nevada with her mother and daughter in September, she hadn’t been able to get a Nevada ID at the DMV yet and had only provided proof of residency. We took her information and told her we’d submit an incident report so that our voter protection team could reach out to her with any pertinent instructions.

Because we had questions about why exactly the provisional voter was unable to register, we decided to call our boiler room contact, Sam. He explained that, in the case of the provisional voter, there wasn’t much anyone could have done; to register on the same day, she would have needed proof of residency and the Nevada ID that she hadn’t been able to receive. Unfortunately, the likelihood of her provisional ballot being counted was very low due to the proximity to the election and the need for provisional ballot verification. 

At 8:00 p.m., I shot a message to Sam with the final ballot count (937, with 72 provisional). Though disappointed that the provisional voter had been unable to register, I was proud of the effort my roommates and I had made to support our democratic process and of my personal, tangible contributions toward rectifying unnecessary barriers to voting. After talking to the other observers, I feel impressed and motivated by the consistent energy they bring to volunteering: committing to multiple 12-hour shifts per week, traveling to wherever they are most needed, and re-engaging each election cycle. Bleary-eyed and beaming as Charlotte and I hugged on the way back to the car, I mentally committed myself to volunteer again the next chance I got.

Contact Katherine Reveno at kreveno ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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