Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
On Tuesday, I worked the polls at a local precinct in Michigan’s primary election. The election was unprecedented, both because of the record voter turnout in my precinct and because of the coronavirus pandemic.
We were underprepared for the latter. When I arrived at 6 a.m., the election inspector team started to unpack ballots, pens, “I Voted” stickers, and protective equipment. We had masks, face shields, a couple of stickers for the floor that read “6 Feet Apart,” some gloves, and one bottle of disinfectant. We were instructed to tape off a mark every six feet, but we weren’t provided with measuring tape.
Our instructions said the pens we provided voters weren’t to be reused, but there wasn’t anything about what to do if we ran out. Same with the manilla folders we were using instead of the traditional privacy envelopes. All of this felt shaky but understandable to me—this is new for everyone, and coordinating an election is a feat even without a pandemic. When one volunteer wondered aloud to our group what to do if someone came to vote without a mask, one of the other inspectors quickly replied, “You can’t say anything—if you do it’s a violation of their health rights.” The person replied “Oh, that makes sense.” (This was false propaganda about a mask requirement being a violation of HIPAA protections that has circulated in Michigan for some time.) I pointed out that while it was true that the governor had said masks wouldn’t be required at polling places, that didn’t mean we couldn’t ask people without masks if they’d mind wearing one. I was told, “No, honey, we’re not asking people to wear masks today.”
As a new inspector, it was unclear to me how far to push this. It was 6:15 a.m., and that isn’t my peak functioning time. I figured I’d just strategically place myself near the front of the line and suggest masks anyway. Not long after, we found that we had been provided with a thermometer—but no batteries. The same inspector said “we’re not taking anyone’s temperature; that’s their private business,” and put the thermometer back in the box.
I thought back to my training. None of this was covered. To be an election inspector, you simply sign up and take a short training, then show up on Election Day. It’s that easy. I had joined a group of people who had mostly worked the polls together before and had a clear point of view on how seriously we were taking the coronavirus. I raised concerns to a leader, but I was told there was simply too much to do to set up for voters to argue. I got to taping the floor with markers 6 feet apart.
The voters lined up to start voting a little before 7 a.m., when the polls opened. There were about 10 people outside at first. They weren’t very far apart. When one of them noticed the “x” on the floor, others seemed to follow suit and move, with the exception of a few. As the day went on, most voters seemed tentative but extra cautious about following the guidelines we did have in place.
I was heartened to see that most people wore masks. I pointed out the masks we had to the people who weren’t wearing them (my fellow inspector looked pained, but life comes at you fast sometimes), and to my surprise, one of them put one on. Several others did not. A few people asked me if the carbon dioxide I was inhaling in my mask was hurting me. I said no.
The saying of the day seemed to be that we’re living in crazy times. One unmasked voter remarked that God made us pretty incredible creatures, “able to absorb a lot.” Another unmasked man in a novelty shirt asked me if he looked like Republican or Democrat, then yelled “but maybe I should keep my mouth shut!” But the unmasked voters stand out in my memory only because most of the voters were masked, polite, and in and out without incident. A few first-time voters came through, and I was probably embarrassingly excited for them. We took a lot of care to make sure they understood the process and knew they could ask us any questions.
Other workers in my precinct were very concerned about voter fraud. Multiple calls went out to local officials throughout the day about potential fraud issues. One voter was almost sent to City Hall because they did not have a photo ID, but I was able to step in and prevent that from happening—I pointed out the affidavit that a voter could sign if they didn’t have a photo ID. That person ultimately voted.
Throughout the day, there were a large number of absentee and mail-in ballots processed, which lowered our risk of encountering someone carrying the virus. (In Michigan, all voters have the right vote by mail.) Even so, there were several instances of people who came to the polls to vote in person because their absentee ballots were either not delivered, stuck at the post office, or the voter had made a mistake while filling it out at home. I asked the chairperson what happens to ballots that don’t make it to the city clerk’s office in time, or are filled out incorrectly. Her answer made me feel a little sick: They just don’t count.
As the day went on, several people thanked me for my “service,” which seemed silly. But after a while, I realized that if I hadn’t been there, the precautions that we did manage to take might not have happened. The voter without an ID might not have been able to vote. The whole day illustrated to me that the system is fragile, and right now, we don’t have the resources necessary to make sure it’s fair and safe. I was able to help with that in a small way. Filling out a form and completing a short training is all it took to become an official election inspector. I’m worried about November. Now that I know how the polling precincts are run, I hope more people will sign up to inspect their local polls on Election Day. If it’s not clear: You’re needed.