Witness to History: Poll Observing in Maricopa County, AZ

Long before sunrise on election day, I got up at 5:00 a.m. and drank a cup of coffee in my room and was ready to go if needed at 5:30 a.m. I had my Poll Observer t-shirt on with a long sleeve shirt to cover it up in case I was asked to go inside the polling place. I went downstairs at 6:15 to scope out the polling place in the hotel and make sure it opened on time. That is when I realized how much I underestimated the seriousness of the entire election operation. Not only were they open but there was a surplus of Democratic poll observers.

I met a lot of Californian volunteers, and some of them had been there all week. I was assigned as a rover, and at 10:00 a.m. I still had not received a call to action. I decided to head to the Democratic headquarters in Phoenix to volunteer to get-out-the-vote. On my way to my car, I saw a couple of volunteers from the Bay Area who said their sister was all alone at the polling place in Peoria and needed a break. We sent the relevant texts to people in Voter Protection AZ and I drove 30 minutes north to a senior living community. The voting center was in their community center. My fellow observer Jill was glad to take a lunch break when I got there a little before eleven because she’d been going since 5 a.m. without a pause.

The voting center was set up to accommodate about 15 voters at a time. Masks were required but they didn’t refuse anyone who didn’t wear a mask (I only saw one person without a mask inside the polling center). All of the poll workers and observers wore both a face mask and plastic face shield to provide extra protection. They had already been working 6 days at this center and this was their final day. They are paid a nominal amount of money—a little better than jury duty—so their dedication seemed even more heroic considering the risk of COVID.

People checked in at the bank of computers to establish that they were registered to vote in Maricopa County. A couple of computer savvy workers were stationed there to troubleshoot with people who moved but hadn’t updated their driver’s license, or had their wallet stolen or one of the other dozen or so situations. Most people were quickly identified in the system and their ballot was printed. Since they can live anywhere in the County and vote here, the ballot had to be printed for each individual. Ballots in 2020 had the Presidential and Senate races but they also had a myriad of local elections and measures. Not everyone in the County has the same special district boundaries. It is vital that each voter receive the right ballot. One of the printers sometimes stopped working and this slowed the line, but the County Voter Registrar’s office was quick to troubleshoot by phone or come out. They also periodically delivered new blank ballots.

[No photos are allowed in a polling place both as a privacy and security measure.]

Once a voter received their ballot, they moved to a small booth with privacy screens to fill in their ballot. They were provided sanitized Sharpie pens to better fill the bubbles. Sometimes the black ink bled through to the other side. I heard the question a dozen times, “The pen ink bled through, will the machine still county my ballot?” The answer was always the same, “The ballots are designed so there is no confusion. Your ballot will be counted just as you marked it.”

I’ve been voting by absentee for so long that I didn’t know about this next step. Then the voter walked their ballot over to the tabulator. This machine looked like a small copier. They inserted their ballot into the machine. It read both sides and either responded with a green check letting the voter know there are no issues, or a red x with an accompanying message about an issue they could still resolve. If they pressed the x the tabulator spat their ballot back out. For example, they could vote for a judge in a race they might have skipped or trade their ballot for a new one and mark it differently if they inadvertently voted for two candidates for the same office. Or they could also override the x and submit the ballot anyway. As you might imagine, a poll worker had to help people with the tabulator as people didn’t know how to use it. They did this with the utmost discretion.

People could then collect their “I voted” sticker and be on their way. Around 2 p.m. our voting center ran out of stickers. People were genuinely upset! Americans are definitely conditioned to expect a gold star when we do something good. We didn’t know at the time that the stickers ran out because this election was turning into a record breaker for turnout. I was volunteering outside when a first-time voter who voted somewhere else asked if there were any stickers at this center. I congratulated her but said, sorry no. Then I pulled off my sticker from my t-shirt and gave it to her. She was all smiles.

Actually, almost everyone was excited to vote. Peoria is in northern Maricopa County which is known for being conservative. And yet because it was a voting center people who work in the area or were in the area that day, could drop in and vote or leave their PEVL ballot. This made for a much more diverse electorate than if it was just the seniors who lived in this “Sun City” type community.

In June and July, I volunteered to write postcards to northern Arizonans who were registered Democrats and not registered for the Permanent Early Voting Registry (PEVL). The key to using PEVL is to make sure you mail it in time to be received by election day, or to drop it off at one of the voting centers. The other hitch is to make sure you sign the envelope and seal it. One older poll worker who struggled to stay awake in the afternoon, roused himself every time someone approached the drop box to deposit their PEVL ballot. He would ask them if they’d signed it and about one in ten would pause and then move over to a table to sign their ballot and seal it. I believe they received about 1000 ballots or more this way.

For about an hour or so I got to sit outside and be available on the far side of the 75-foot boundary to answer voter questions. I loved it because I could encourage people and say “good on you” to the people who waited up to an hour to vote. There is not supposed to be any politicking inside the 75-foot marker. And as poll observers we were not to wear anything that indicated our party or preference within the polling place or inside the boundary. Voters could wear whatever they liked. I did not see any Biden t-shirts but I saw a lot of Trump and MAGA gear. An occasionally a jeep or truck would pull into the parking lot with Trump flags. I also saw a young black man wearing a Trump-Pence t-shirt that helped to remind me that we should not assume anything on election day.

This former-Southern Californian regaled me with stories of Presidential elections past starting with 1968.

I interacted with a lot of good-hearted people. None more so than the poll workers. The team of six were captained by an Inspector. She had a Marshall (ironically the sleepy man), and two assistants. There were two other workers who mainly worked the printers and who did not have as much responsibility for securing the vote at the end of the evening. They faced many physical challenges including advanced age and overall health, but none of them complained or shirked their work. I was so impressed. I wanted to applaud at the end of the day.

Arizonans arrived to vote by golf cart…
and on horseback. Tip of the hat to the Navajo Nation.

As the day drew to a close, the Marshall began proclaiming loudly outside that the polling center would be closing in 15 minutes, or 10 minutes, etc. Just before 7 p.m. one or two people entered. They were given all the time they needed to vote. No one is allowed in after 7 p.m. unless they were already in line. One of my jobs was to ensure that whoever was in line at 7 p.m. was still allowed to vote, but we had no line. As soon as the last voter was finished, observers were asked to step to the doorway so as to not be in the way as they began the breakdown and securing the vote. We could still see what was going on.

The team took this job very seriously. The inspector consulted her binder of instructions every step of the way. There are special bins for the tabulator tape, the actual ballots, the PEVL ballots and the computer thumb drives. Several people had to sign to affirm that steps were followed and bins secured. My contact in the Democratic Party voter security boiler room had said “Be sure that two people take the secured ballots to the County headquarters, even if you have to lie in front of the truck to stop them.” This also turned out to a non-issue as the Inspector asked for volunteers—one Democrat and one Republican—to drive the ballots to the County office.

I walked out of the voting center to follow the ballots and witness them leaving with two people. It was almost 8:30 p.m. I came away with a new respect for voting security while the Republican observer said, “Boy, you can see how easy it would be to commit fraud.” I didn’t let her go unchallenged. Everyone would have to be in cahoots, and they can’t tell who anyone voted for so they’d have to disenfranchise everyone. She replied, “Still, you can see how it could happen.” No, I don’t see. But I don’t go on Facebook and I don’t watch Fox News.

I drove back to my hotel a little hungry for dinner and buzzing from the day. I was tired but so, so happy that I’d witnessed something amazing: a record voter turnout successfully served during a pandemic. This is what democracy looks like.

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