Who’s Really Behind Our Elections?

Jill Burcham Election Officer
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Regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections, disgruntled partisans will inevitably find scapegoats for unfavorable results. Among explanations of low voter turnout, unpopular incumbents or challengers, and third-party candidates, analysts somewhere are sure to bring up suppressed minorities or voter fraud.

Readers across the nation will read regurgitated talking points from previous years. All too frequently, one side blames disenfranchisement and the other side cites fraud for disappointing election results.

In fact, one must neither wait until the election nor look any further than the home page of RealClearPolitics this past Tuesday. The opinion aggregator showcased the following headlines: “A Catastrophe of Disenfranchisement” and “Here Comes the 2014 Voter Fraud.” The first laments new (and stricter) voting I.D. laws in states such as Texas and Wisconsin. The second addresses recent indictments of various individuals for voter fraud.

These specific authors are established legal critics and writers, each a representative of his larger movement. But from those camps, how many strident voices will have made any effort to be part of a solution instead of merely critics? Undoubtedly very few will have served as election officers, critical public servants without whom elections would be impossible.

Regardless of one’s political ideology, all should agree that for a fair election, citizens who have the right to vote should not be prohibited from voting, that no citizen should receive additional votes, and that noncitizens have no vote. However, policies for the best election integrity are matters of debate for legislatures. Officers of election are sworn to uphold the law, whatever it is. Election officers often have a thankless task with no recognition for a long day’s work unless something goes wrong.

Every campaign cycle young people are encouraged, pressured, or enticed to volunteer for get-out-the-vote efforts for various parties or races. It’s cool to wear a campaign t-shirt or display a button on their backpacks, to try to sway those undecided voters outside the polls on Election Day. The vote is all-important.

And yet, how many voters have considered the truly non-partisan support necessary to allow them to vote? County registrars and their staff must prepare months in advance, selecting officers of election (California alone needs over 100,000), conducting training for those officers, and preparing requisite equipment for every precinct. Each precinct must have pollbooks, voting booths, chargers and power cords for electrical equipment, signs to post rules of the polling place, seals for pollbooks, forms for officers to sign, numerous envelopes for various official documents and reports, provisional ballots; the list could go on.

Shouldn’t twenty-somethings, then – or anyone, for that matter – be encouraged to do the not-so-glamorous work of sitting at the polls? It is certainly an early morning and a long day. In Virginia, an election officer has to be at the polling place by 5:00 am, ready for that first wave of voters at 6:00. The officer sits at a table checking in voters or stands at the poll booth to activate the ballot and remains at his post until the polls close at 7:00 pm. Following the close of polls, there is the number checking to be sure everything adds up.

These citizens who have volunteered their time to serve in the capacity of election officers are the practical facilitators of that right central to American government – the right to vote. By greeting each voter, confirming visually and audibly his identity, and providing whatever accommodations that voter needs, the officer of election stands as the watchman against both disenfranchisement and fraud.

As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. One can only hope that those who are the most voluble about flaws in the American electoral system might take the time to do something concrete about it by volunteering their time next election cycle. And in the meantime, the officers of election will hope for a smile and a thank-you as the pundits wait in line to cast a vote.

Jill Burcham, a communications professional, serves as an officer of election in the Commonwealth of Virginia.