Notes from Inside the General Election

For this Tuesday’s general election, I worked again as an official observer at the state counting center. I took a few notes throughout the process, recording the ups and downs of a long day.

7:50 a.m. – It’s time to go. Election workers roll out cages full of mail-in absentee ballots from storage, and wheel them down the hallway to the envelope-opening work station. Those observers not following the ballots are tracking down coffee.

8:15 a.m. – There are a lot of familiar faces at the absentee ballot opening and sorting station, repeat volunteers from the primary election. Everyone’s sitting in pairs behind folding tables lined up along both sides of the hallway, talking story, doing sudoku, reading the paper, waiting for the rush.

8:33 a.m. – We’re standing around, staring at the ballots in their cages. The keys to open them are late.

8:41 a.m. – The keys are here! The team begins to unload the USPS boxes containing the ballots, and soon the opening machines are whirring away with a regular, quick honking sound of envelopes being fed through and sliced open. By a quick back-of-the-napkin estimate, I’d guess there are close to 90,000 ballots here. Looks like twice what there were in the primary. Looks like it’s going to be a long day.

10 a.m. – By now, the absentee ballot opening/sorting team is going full-bore, and my shift has changed to computer operations, on the floor of the house chamber. This is where all the ballots will eventually be scanned in and tabulated. Right now it’s quiet, waiting for the boxes of sorted absentee ballots to start trickling in.

10:45 a.m. – It took a while to perfect the work flow through all the different stations in the computer operations center, but ballot counting is now going strong. There are a couple of workers devoted to opening up the boxes of ballots and making sure they’re stacked neatly. Many of the ballots are showing up with wrinkles running along their bottom third, obscuring the bar code. The workers iron these wrinkles out using their thumbs and post-it notes.

11 a.m. – Lunch arrives in the parking lot: bentos from Tanioka’s with four different kinds of meat, and a can of soda on the side. For some reason, there are basically zero vegetarian meals to be had. There is much discussion in the lunch room over this.

11:57 a.m. – While most of the election volunteers are eating lunch out in the parking lot, a pair of observers pace up and down the empty hallway, keeping an eye on the stacks of opened ballots on the tables.

2:45 p.m. – Still scanning ballots. Things seem to be going slowly at a few of the stations. Defective ballots hiding in normal-looking batches, software hang-ups, delicate feeding mechanisms that have to be babied so they don’t jam up. No catastrophic problems, but it takes time to resolve even little glitches. The mood in the room is relatively relaxed and focused, but it’s hard not to keep glancing at the huge stack of boxed ballots waiting to processed. Shouldn’t that be going down faster?

5:03 p.m. – Dinner. Bento. Meat. Urg.

6:30 p.m. – It’s the calm before the storm. Polls have closed, and we’re waiting for the ballot boxes to arrive from each of the precints. News is circulating about Obama’s commanding lead in the national race. The counting center is technically supposed to be closed off from the outside world—no cell phones or internet connections allowed inside—but you can’t gather this many political junkies in a room and not expect chatter.

7:30 p.m. – Ballot machines—cans—start arriving from each of the different precincts in a parade of taxis. We’ve got to check all the two-person teams, each with materials from two to three precincts, making sure all the numbers on their paperwork matches up with the numbers on the sealed cans. We’re working as fast as we can, but soon there’s a line stretching almost out of the parking lot. One team has misplaced one of its cans (it ends up being back at the polling station), other teams have cans with missing seals and have to sign for them. Everything gets noted and moved along—we trust it’ll all get sorted out inside.

9:45 p.m. – The rush has subsided; the energy, and the ballot machines, have all moved inside. Stacks of black ballot machines are stacked all over the place, waiting their turn to be scanned into the system. Absentee ballots are still being processed. This is going to be a long night.

10:00 p.m. – Pizza!

11:30 p.m. – There are still absentee ballots going through the scanning stations, but at this point most of the ballots have been processed, reboxed and stacked into the storage area on the side. Now it’s time to start manually auditing. Workers unseal a random selection of voted ballot boxes from the storage area, and wheel them out to teams of auditing volunteers. They’ll go through each of the boxes by hand, counting up votes the old fashioned way, making sure the machine tally got everything right.

12:30 a.m. – As the counting process winds into the final early morning hours, there’s less for the team of observers to keep an eye on. Many will be at the center until the break of dawn or later, but those who have to work the next day, or who are just tired, are given the chance to call it a day. I call it a day.

2:30 a.m. – Sitting at my computer at home, catching up on all the national election results and speeches I missed earlier in the evening. What a night. Not tired at all.