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Reflections on working as an election judge

I don't know how to start with this.

There are a number of isolated moments that stand out in my mind. Some are poignant, like the woman who, upon hearing we couldn't find her registration in the computer, shook her head and said, her quiet frustration palpable, "I just won't vote, then." She put her driver's license away and calmly walked out of the room. We had already told her about the Voter Verification Hotline, but she didn't seem all that interested in waiting on hold for what promised to be a very long time. So she left without casting her ballot. I tend to personalize negative outcomes in a way that isn't warranted (my wife can attest to this), so I had to acknowledge, then dismiss, the sinking feeling that the situation was somehow my fault.

Some moments were joyful, in that primitive "caveman starts fire" sense, like when our one troublesome ePollbook (the custom laptop builds used to check in voters) finally connected to the MiFi device and was able to transmit its bits. I'd spent hours struggling with Windows networking settings, Googling things on my phone, and playing tag with the County's tech support hotline. After the last time I hung up with them, for no apparent reason, it started working. Quelle surprise: specialized voting computers behave like basically every other kind of computer.

Others were genuinelly fulfilling, like the younger guy taking a selfie just outside the door, still masked. He had just registered, and voted, for the first time in his life. Illinois is one state that isn't completely broken in that way; as long as you are eligible, you may register and cast your ballot at the same time, on election day.

There were moments of panic, like when a woman knocked on my car window at 4:50AM, asking if I was a PPT (Polling Place Technician). It turned out that her team had not met ahead of time to prepare the polling place, as teams of judges are instructed to do. Everything for their precinct was still packed snugly inside their VSC (Voting Supply Carrier), which is the large, metal, secure cabinet holding all the equipment and supplies. Fortunately, the key I had obtained the previous Sunday for my own VSC also unlocked hers, so we were able to rush through the setup process (still fresh in my mind from Monday), and their precinct opened more or less on time.

I struggled to stay focused at times, which is rare for me (as my wife can also confirm). Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but I simply couldn't tune out the voice of the custodian, kicking his feet back and forth while sitting on the stage in the multipurpose room. He was waiting for us to finish our final tabulation and data upload, before we could pack things up, walk out of the local park district building, and all go home. As he munched on some food, he complained about the fact that his vote, in Illinois, basically didn't matter. That it was effectively drowned out because the entire Chicago metropolitan area very often votes as one block. Now, hard as it may be for some to believe, I actually do sympathize with his viewpoint. And yet, it's complicated. In any event, I had to force my brain to refocus instead on the screen in front of me, counting the rows in a Windows 95 era grid manually because the software wasn't up to the task I needed it to perform.

The day was not without humor. At one point, a younger guy walked in, handed us his license, and nonchalantly observed that "I might actually live in DuPage County, huh?" We quickly confirmed that to be the case, looked up where his actual polling place was supposed to be (a dozen miles away), and off he went, unbothered.

I think about all the people who helped along the way. First, there was my neighbor, who said "yes" right away to my request to borow a car in order to drive to the polling place. We have one car at home, and I would be gone from early morning until late at night. He warned me that the heat doesn't work, which didn't bother me. I'm very easygoing about things like that. Not that it mattered, anyway, since we had a nearly 70 degree, sunny day in early November. There was also a local woman, whose name I recognized "from Facebook", but have never met in person, who sent me an umprompted message offering to pay for my lunch. Some groups had raised money for that sort of thing, she explained. I hemmed and hawed, since I don't really need such generosity, but ultimately took her up on it. This covered almost all of the cost for five judges' delivered lunches.

The more I process the totality of my experiences, the less I'm able to fit everything into a coherent narrative. On one hand, the entire experience was an utterly ridiculous, unmitigated disaster. The Cook County Clerk's office is a bloated, insanely inefficient and ineffective bureaucracy. Now, in fairness, they surely don't stand alone amongst municipal bodies of similar size and scope. But really, come on.

The training material, though comprehensive, still contained ambiguous language and omitted key steps/pictures/details. Nobody who focuses on user-oriented product design, or usability, could make it through the training and the main event without feeling a significant degree of professional distress. I also suffered. The biggest problem with the training, though, is they don't tell you why you're asked do anything. Why is it important to record all seal numbers, and be careful to only break certain ones? Why are these additional steps reqiured for this particular check-in scenario? Why did they change things this time so that touch screens printed a paper ballot, which was then scanned? I'm positive that if someone understands the motivation behind performing a task, they will not only remember better how to follow the instructions, but will also be motivated to do so.

But those gripes are small potatoes. This office undoubtedly has a large budget and employs an army of people. So why did they not tell me until two days before the election where I was to be stationed? As someone who likes to plan things well ahead of time (preferably weeks), this drove me nuts. And why did they ask me on that same Sunday to take on the additional responsibility of being an "administrative judge" because they "had nobody else" (even though, according to news reports, they had twice as many judges as they needed due to unprecedented interest)? Why had nobody followed up on the precinct that apparently everyone forgot to set up the day before, even though they presumably have a central computer somewhere that should alert them to this fact? Why were all the names of judges on the website and printed materials wrong, requiring wasted time to correct?

I'm someone who is detail oriented, but I still struggled to remember (and follow) all of the detailed procedures for every contingency and scenario, while keeping the line moving. Someone unceremoniously wandered in and dropped off some instructions at 11:15AM in an envelope marked "special instructions: deliver by 6AM", which made no sense and actually seemed to complicate our (finally) well oiled process for no apparent reason.

For the most part, these problems are not unique to the election authority portion of the Cook County government. Every buraucracy works this way: individual actors, well-intentioned and motivated as they may be, are not empowered to make decisions or adjust processes in response to obvious deficiencies. So, really, making these complaints and giving this feedback to them is, itself, pointless (although I still plan to anyway).

And yet, I just can't write off the entire endeavor as an unmitigated disaster. Despite the problems, and the flawed systems, and the organizational/electronic/cosmic entropies aliging against us, we enabled 186 people to cast ballots on November 3rd. Although not every procedure was followed perfectly, I am extremely confident in the integrity of our reported results. Even though the five of us had various differing political views, we all worked towards a common purpose and there was never any question of individual motivation or the goal we were cooperatively working towards. So perhaps it was a success, after all?

Maybe that duality is the narrative. That when people are put together in a room to solve a modestly scoped problem, they can get along despite political differences? That, given some shared sense of purpose, they can succeed in spite of the byzantine and flawed system in which they're working?

As I write this, the final legitimately cast votes are still being counted in a number of states that are always crucial for an Electoral College victory. Even though the President-elect still isn't clear, one thing already is, abundantly: the United States is more politically divided than ever. And there doesn't appear to be much hope on the horizon.

Perhaps that's why I enjoyed my experience working in the polls. I keep thinking of Bruce (not his real name), an older, grumpy, white guy. He only wanted to hand out the paper ballots, and not have anything to do with the computers whatsoever. Of course, people talk, and during an idle moment, he shared his Coronavirus conspiracy theories with me. I told him why I thought they were crap (loudly, since he can't hear too well). He laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to counting the remaining paper ballots. I'm positive that if Jessica (the early 20s black woman in the other precinct, also not her name) had ended up in the same room as Bruce, she could have handled him as effortlessly and confidently as the handled the chaos of election day itself.

Now, let's not oversell this or wax too poetically. I don't know if the sense of cooperation I experienced can be extended to tackle larger problems. I don't know if it can overcome the huge divide not just in our politics, but in our shared epistemology. I don't know if it can somehow transcend into online spaces, where most of our discourse now takes place. All I know is that it's truly intoxicating, and I plan to sign up again next time.


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