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Election Rewind: A Day at the Polls

What it was like on the other side of the ballot box.

Everyone has a voting story. Wednesday morning at work, we all shared ours, and then again last night, at a school function, I heard even more. People who waited for hours to vote first thing making sure a Northern Virginia commute wouldn’t prevent them from voting, flat tires and people who breezed right through in the middle of the day.

One gentleman told me the story of voting at the Jersey shore, where a hotel became a last-minute voting location and to ensure voter privacy, the staff hastily arranged for an oversized cardboard box to serve as a voting booth looking like the beginnings of a kid’s Halloween costume.

Voting is our right and our duty. 

I have been an elections officer in Prince William County since the Democratic primary of 2008. I wanted to share a few things about your neighbors who are there to help you exercise your right.

Election Officers Are People Like You

Any registered Virginia voter who isn’t an elected official or who doesn’t work for an elected official can serve as an election officer. In our precinct, we had a team of 10 officers composed of longtime veterans and a few brand-new officers. We had a mix of professional backgrounds (several government employees who previously  served in the military, a real estate agent, a sales person, a non-profit professional, a retired contractor, a college student and a lifeguard) and a range of ages from student to more seasoned individuals.

The Hours Are Long

...and the pay is, well, if you have to ask...Officers in PWC make $125 for the day, in Fairfax $100 (with slightly higher rates for the chief and assistant chief officers). Not bad as long as you don’t do the math. The workday starts at 5 a.m. and goes until the polls are closed, the paperwork is completed and the site is cleaned up. Our precinct is led by a veteran and a Boy Scout leader so we are quite efficient and were out the door before 9 p.m., less than two hours after the polls closed. You have to commit to work the entire day and you can’t step out for lunch, to walk the dog or any other reason. Once you are there, you are committed to stay the entire shift.

Each officer has to attend at least one training session as well and PWC adds a small amount to the daily rate for attending that session. Some election officers volunteer to assist with in-person absentee locations prior to Election Day and don’t expect a thing in return.

There Is a Lot of Paperwork

At closing time, we didn’t have any waiting voters. We had a large staff, many of us with several elections-worth of experience, yet we still had work to do for almost two hours. Why so long? Paperwork. We have detailed instructions on how to close down all the machines to collect the voting data and to ensure its integrity.

The votes from the machine are consolidated and those numbers are transferred into the Statement of Results along with ballots cast on paper by outside voters and others, and provisional votes are logged. Any communications with the county office are logged, any “incidents," all supporting documentation and summaries from the poll-book check-ins are added. It is only after we complete the Statement of Results that we can call in to report.  This is why it may take so long to have 100 percent precincts reported on election night.

We Train Hard for Election Day

Whether learning the basics of the particular hardware, software or paperwork or about the laws and regulations that change from time to time, we are trained. Training sessions take up to three hours for officers prior to each election and in the lead up to a presidential election there may be more than one session. This year’s changes in voter identification had Prince William County’s Electoral Board offering “summinars” on the new requirements. Both Fairfax and Prince William are also adding videos on their websites to offer more information. We take an oath to follow the law and to ensure a fair election.

Anything Can Happen

Remember our earthquake in 2011? That happened to be on the same day as a primary election. The snowstorm in February 2008 wreaked havoc on the closing hours of the Democratic primary and there are always unexpected situations like power problems, malfunctioning equipment and confusion after changes in poll locations.

We are given emergency plans to ensure that no matter what occurs, your votes already cast are preserved and after a few adjustments, that the election will go on. Elections have taken place in parking lots and by flashlight. Our only incident this time around was a small medical situation where our trained lifeguard was great at helping with before, during and after emergency personnel arrived.

The Food Is Pretty Good!

No, no, the counties aren’t paying for catering. The spread is provided by our fellow officers, each bringing potluck goodies. Several of us also can call on the assistance of friends and family to refill the stores if rations run low. Unfortunately, that can lead to a bit of over-eating on slow turnout elections and the food being untouched when we have a busy presidential election to handle. We coordinate in the week before to make sure we don’t all bring the same thing or that no one forgets to bring the crucial caffeine.

We Love Our Voters

 There are always a few sour apples who come in, and registration issues can make voters stressed, but for the vast majority of voters, we are happy to be there to assist in any way to getting you to be able to cast your vote. There are provisions for blind voters, to allow for assistance from a friend or family member (or even from one of the officers) or to allow for you to vote curbside. If you show up at the wrong precinct, we work to make sure you find the right one. If you can’t stand for long periods, we are happy to find you a chair and if you want to have a chance to study the ballot that will be on the machine, it is posted prominently.

Sometimes there are problems such as the long lines in some Prince William precincts and the voting machine issues at two Spotsylvania County precincts. We know it is frustrating and that you might take it out on us. We take problems seriously and please remember you are our neighbors. The last thing we want to see is someone in distress either from standing in long lines or being a toddler and doing a very boring thing when you are hungry or missing naptime. Ask us for help and we will see what we can do.

A Message to Voters from your Election Officers

It is always important before every election to confirm your voter registration, your personal information, your polling place and your ballot before the end of registration for that election. The people tasked with managing your registration can make mistakes. Lines are redrawn to rebalance the precinct size and every 10 years, the congressional districts are realigned. Check online at the Virginia State Board of Elections site. If you move, you need to change your registration. Many voters came to the polls expecting that changing their address at the DMV would change it on the voter rolls. It doesn’t.

[Editor's Note: You can apply to register to vote or change voter information at any Virginia DMV office, but it doesn't happen automatically. See the DMV website for information.]

We do not ever want to turn someone away. Make sure your right is preserved.

Do you have an Election Day story? Tell us about it in the comments box below. How did things go at your precinct? 

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