Katherine Miller
The New York Times

How Bad Are Things? I Asked Some Election Workers.

One of the challenges of being alive right now is making sense of the threat to the American election system: It’s hard to determine, conclusively, how widespread that threat is, how much chaos and danger we’re living through and what to do next.

How bad are things? In an October Reuters/Ipsos poll, 43 percent of voters said they worried about threats of violence or intimidation while voting. New York Times/Siena College polling has found that insofar as people worry about threats to democracy in the United States, they attribute the problem to the opposing party — an untenable situation that is tough to resolve. Recently, people have shown up, armed, to watch voter drop boxes. Many, many Republican candidates continue to advance false claims about the 2020 election. All over the country, election officials and workers have quit, citing threats and demands on them. One violent episode can alter individual lives forever, as well as reverberate through politics in deep and unexpected ways. You can picture a grim scenario in which voting and election work moves, like other facets of American life, into a permanent siege posture.

Nobody really wants to live like that; nobody likes to think we could. But understanding the tangible, everyday scale of these problems — what’s changed and what hasn’t — genuinely isn’t easy.

In endless tension with more abstract questions about the big picture is the practical reality that in a democratic republic, real people, with real lives, set up the voting equipment in a middle school gym somewhere, check you in, hand you a ballot, hand you a sticker, make sure the tabulator is empty before the count begins — the full battery of mundane procedures that start in your neighborhood and filter up through the county and the state and, in a presidential year, all the way up through the country.

This fall, I spent two days in Durham, N.C., talking with four election workers with whom the county’s board of elections connected me. This ended up being as far from violence and conspiracy theories as you can get: drinking coffee outside in prime North Carolina fall weather, crystal clear mornings and warm afternoons, talking about how people got involved and how the process unfolds in the days leading up to Election Day.

The four workers, who are paid, ranged in age from 30s to 70s. Two signed up in more recent election cycles, and two started working at the suggestion of a friend more than a decade ago. All worked early voting and Election Day before. We talked about things like provisional ballots, process checklists and local safeguards. The tenor here was brightness and practicality.

One of them said that if someone has concerns about election fraud, one way to alleviate the feeling, to trust elections again, would be to undergo the formal training to be a poll worker or watcher and to see the whole thing unfold. The cut-and-dried nature of the process appeals to him. “Like, here are the laws you must follow. Here are the rules and the process that you must go through,” he said.

Asked what she wanted people to know about election workers in Durham, one woman, who’s been working elections since she moved there in the 1970s and whose two sisters are election workers where they live, too, said, “They’re everyday people. A lot of them are retired. A lot of them love the system. They’ve been working for years, so they enjoy doing the work. They know the work.” She said she likes the variety of the tasks, meeting workers and voters and seeing the process at the end, confirming the accuracy of the count. Another election worker mentioned that he liked the community nature of the endeavor, in which workers sometimes bring Bojangles and coffee to the precinct for the group.

One mentioned the possibility of a violent episode and the bewildering question of what she would do if that happened at her site. But this was just one possible scenario she thinks about and plans for. “When we start a shift, I always like to start with: The voter walks in, what is that voter’s experience?” In her precincts, she said, she advises workers to put down their books or magazines, even if the voter isn’t at their station, to ensure a sense of seriousness and value in the room. “That’s the only reason we’re there.”

This is, probably, in the past two decades of American life, the more median experience with voting and election work: commonplace, uneventful, mechanical, populated by your neighbors. But we live in 2022. People like this in other cities or towns have become the subject of conspiracy theories and threats, frequently over a politician’s misrepresentation of a routine voting or counting procedure.

This is a really big country. What’s happening in one place isn’t always happening in another, which is what makes it difficult to genuinely understand if the problems we have right now are temporary, existential or somewhere in between. In a democratic republic, we all are joined by both law and broader, harder-to-pin-down concepts like trust and fear. Preserving the uneventful and calm aspects of an election system while still recognizing its flaws and vulnerabilities is difficult in a moment of possibly deep peril.

Ultimately, elections are administered by regular people who opt into the process. This prospect could make you nervous or, depending on your perspective, could deeply reassure you. The system requires people to continue to want to do this, and the fact that we’re talking about violence and intimidation at all highlights how fragile this arrangement could be. In North Carolina, for a couple of days, real life briefly felt normal: talking with four people about how the system works, about their lives, about doing that work and about voters who walk through the door.

The New York Times