Every business election day, the calls come in to the registrar’s office.
The lines are too @#$#% long!
Anna Cloeter, Roanoke County’s voter registrar, has a ready answer. “The best way to avoid lines in the future is to sign up to be an officer of election,” she tells the angry callers.
“That usually gets me hung up on pretty quickly,” she says.
And how many people are calling to complain about the lines? Cloeter does some rough math in her head. “At least 25 of the people who called me in November stayed on the line long enough for me to say would you be interested in this?”—which means a lot more were hanging up before she got to her sales pitch.
And of those 25, how many people actually took her up on her offer? Maybe three.
People like to complain about a problem, but not many are interested in actually fixing it.
It’s summer 2019. Most people’s minds are still on the beach, the tomatoes ripening in the garden, or the season-ending episode of “Stranger Things.” That’s not where the heads of Virginia’s election officials are, though. They’re thinking ahead to November 2020, and the next presidential election.
Turnout is always heaviest in a presidential election—no matter who’s running—and you don’t have to watch Fox News or MSNBC on a 24-hour basis to get the feeling that next year’s might bring out the biggest turnout yet. We don’t know who will win, but we know who will lose: Everyone who has to wait in one of those long lines to get their turn to vote. That’s why election officials are trying now, more than a year in advance, to get people to sign up to serve as officers of election.
Here’s the thing to keep in mind: On election day, there is no army of bureaucrats that comes down out of their offices to run elections. Roanoke County has more registered voters than any locality west of Albemarle County. Do you know how many people work for the Roanoke County registrar’s office? Three. That’s all. But to run elections in Roanoke County there have to be a minimum of 99 officers of election – state law requires at least three per precinct, and Roanoke County has 33 precincts.
That 99 is a bare minimum. Roanoke County actually has about 200 people signed up to be officers of election—and even then people complain that the lines are too long. Ken Srpan, chairman of the Roanoke County Electoral Board, says he’d like to have at least triple the minimum number of election workers in most precincts—and some of the biggest ones, such as Castle Rock, Hunting Hills, Orchards and Peters Creek, could use more than that. So that means more than 300 people, or about 100 more than presently on the books.
Roanoke County’s numbers are the highest around, because it’s got the most voters, but
The problem of long lines of voters—and not enough election officers to process them—is a statewide problem. Every locality needs more election officers.
So if there’s no government office that disgorges election officers every so often, who are the people who actually run our elections? It’s your neighbors. Maybe it’s even you—or could be. This is the central feature of America’s election machinery: It’s run by ordinary people who give up one day every few years to make sure that the most fundamental aspect of democracy, an election, takes place.
OK, that “one day every few years” part applies to other states, not Virginia. Here in Virginia, we love democracy so much we have elections not just every year, but several times a year. In November, we’ll hold elections for the General Assembly and lots of local offices. In 2020, we’ll have presidential primaries in March, municipal elections in certain localities in May, primaries for other party nominations in June, and then the presidential election (and congressional elections) in November.
Those 200 election officers that Roanoke County now has? Not everyone is going to be available for every one of those elections. People get sick. Family members get sick. Everyone knows somebody who’s getting married in June. Things always come up. Life happens. You don’t have to work all those dates, but localities really need lots of election officers for the big one in November.
So who’s eligible? Pretty much anybody. You have to be a registered voter. You can’t work for an elected official. You ought to like dealing with the public. You need to be detail-oriented—and willing to work a long day. Election officers arrive about 5 a.m., an hour before the polls open, and don’t leave until everything is counted and put away, so that’s sometimes 10 p.m. or so. For this you get paid a very modest amount—and the incalculable satisfaction of knowing you helped your community. You also have to swear an oath. For a day, you’re a sworn election officer of the state. You served.
Many election officers, you’ve probably noticed, are retired. That’s great. But state law forbids employers from punishing you if you take a day off to work an election. Also of note: Because the list of voters is in a digital poll book, it helps to have people familiar with touchscreen computers. And as we’ve gone back to paper ballots, it helps to have people strong enough to lift the boxes of ballots.
Cloeter also points out something else: Most high schoolers can’t serve as election officers – they’re not registered voters yet – but they can help in other ways. They can alert election officers when a disabled voter arrives and needs curbside service. They can remind the people in line what kinds of identification they need to have ready. They can help answer other questions that people might have. They can run whatever errands election officers have so they can do their jobs. Cloeter points out the payoff for high school volunteers: She’s willing to write letters to help those students get academic credit for their day of service. And, of course, that service looks great on a resume or a college application.
Now we come to the point where we wax poetic, so get ready: People died so you could have the right to vote. They gave their lives so we could have a democracy; all we’re asking here is for a day or so of your time to help make it work. If that’s not sufficiently persuasive, then don’t complain how long you have to wait in line next November.