Getting into good trouble can be risky. I wasn’t sure which to be more afraid of, Covid-19 or Republican voter intimidation tactics.
Getting into good trouble can be risky. I wasn't sure which to be more afraid of, Covid-19 or Republican voter intimidation tactics.
My husband had worked the last five presidential elections, in Florida in ’04, and in Ohio in ’08, ’12, ’16, and ’20. I never went, for various reasons the first four times, and then because of Covid in 2020. But when the head of the lawyers’ group he had worked with in Cleveland sent out an email asking for people to volunteer with the Georgia Democratic Party for the January runoff, I said “let’s do it!” Although still worried about Covid, I felt bolder because the Ohio trip had turned out okay. It seemed a risk worth taking.
I had already written 100 postcards to Georgia voters, and sent money multiple times to Warnock and Ossoff, but that just didn’t seem like enough. Electing these two Democrats to the Senate was so important that I needed to do more. We filled out the online forms, signing up for four different roles: Poll Watcher on election day, Ballot Processing Monitor, Vote Review Panel, and “Lawyer Cavalry.”
There were trainings on Zoom for each of these roles. The poll watcher training alone was three hours long! They explained the complicated Georgia voting process, which involves three different machines. Voters sign in on a tablet, that signature is matched to the signature on file, then a card is generated by that tablet to be inserted in the voting machine. Voters mark their choices on the machine, which spits out a completed paper ballot. They take that ballot to a scanner, which scans it and states that the vote has been cast. We would not be involved with, or even come close to, any of those machines, but we had to be aware of what could go wrong, and then report to our Boiler Room if any of the machines malfunctioned, thereby delaying the voting. While poll watching, we were to report in every hour at five minutes past the hour, indicating how long the wait to vote was, and whether there were any problems at the polling place. There would be two Democratic poll watchers at every polling place, one inside and one outside. The outside watcher was to make sure that there was no voter intimidation going on as people approached the building or while waiting in line (which had happened in November). Our general goal was to make sure that everyone could vote, whereas the goal of Republicans was to prevent people from voting.
There was a one-hour Zoom training for each of the other roles we had signed up for. These primarily emphasized all the ways that the Republicans or anyone else might try to obstruct the process, and what we should do in each case. As this was different for each role, I started getting nervous that I would report problems on the wrong platform or at the wrong time. I thought about making a chart to sort out all the instructions, but never did.
We decided to fly to Atlanta on New Year’s Day, because we thought planes and airports would be less crowded on the holiday. It was also our anniversary, and it seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate.
We started taking quercetin, zinc, and vitamin D3, which are supposed to boost immunity. We bought a box of N-95 masks online, as well as plastic face shields. It turned out that we only wore the face shields in the airports and on the planes, because they fogged up (even though they claimed to be nonfogging), and made it difficult to see. It was also more difficult to breathe. But when I had both the mask and the shield on, I did feel protected.
The Atlanta airport is huge, and we had to take two different trains, one from the gate area to the main concourse, and another from baggage claim to the rental car center. We got our car and drove to the hotel, a Hilton Garden Inn in the Buckhead district of Atlanta. We were pleased to discover that our hotel was very comfortable, since it was going to be our home for eight nights. Its restaurant was closed and there was no room service because of the pandemic. But we did have a refrigerator and a microwave oven in our room. We found a Kroger’s supermarket within walking distance, where we bought food for our breakfasts and dinners so we could eat in the room.
Day 1 -Saturday, January 2nd We were assigned to be Lawyer Cavalry backing up the Ballot Processing Monitors in Cobb County. Before we got there, we received a text saying that one of the two Democratic monitors had called in sick, and the other one, while very experienced, would be glad to have our company. She turned out to be very helpful, having worked numerous Georgia elections, and explained to us a lot of what was going on. She had complete faith in the election workers, and didn’t feel the need to watch them too closely as they opened and processed the mail-in ballots. However, she did watch the two Republican monitors closely, as they went around sticking their noses everywhere, trying in vain to find something to challenge.
There were signs all over the building saying no cell phones allowed, and we had been warned in the Zoom trainings that most counties would make you leave your phone in the car. It was understandable that they didn’t want anyone taking pictures of the ballots or the people, but it made me nervous to think of not having my phone available in case of emergency. So I put my phone on vibrate and brought it inside in my handbag. At some point I felt the vibration of a text, so I went out by the bathrooms to see what it was. I didn’t think to hide in a bathroom stall. One of the Republican women saw me looking at my phone and pounced, saying “no phones allowed here!” I said “oh sorry” and quickly put it away. But she reported me to the person in charge, who came and sheepishly told me that I would have to put my phone in the car. It was clear that she didn’t like doing it, but the Republican woman was standing there glowering. The woman in charge then asked my husband if he had a phone, and he looked her in the eye and said “no,” even though he did. I walked out to the car, stayed a while til I could calm down, and then put my phone in the glove compartment. I thought about walking back in with it in my bag, but I worried that someone might check. The Republican woman left soon afterward, and I felt like it made her day that she could at least stick it to a Democrat, even though she wasn’t able to invalidate any ballots. They closed for the day at 5:30, and also announced that they would not be processing ballots the next day, which was Sunday.
Day 2 -Sunday, January 3 We were scheduled to be Lawyer Cavalry in Cobb County again. Since they were taking the day off, we got an email asking if we could work in Gwinnett County instead. We said yes, even though we had no idea where Gwinnett County was. (Georgia has 159 counties, which is crazy! Only Texas has more.) Before we left, we got a text saying Gwinnett wasn’t processing on Sunday either. They didn’t need us anywhere else, so we had the day off. We thought we might do some sightseeing, but all the sights we were interested in were closed because of Covid. We had gotten some restaurant recommendations from a Retrospect friend, and decided we should at least go out for a nice meal. One of the restaurants, South City Kitchen, turned out to be walking distance from our hotel. On Sundays it was only open from 10 to 3, but that was fine, since we didn’t have anything else to do. When we read about it on Yelp, everyone raved about the food; the only complaints were about parking. So we smugly set out on foot. We had a wonderful southern lunch there, starting with the highly-recommended she-crab soup, followed by fried green tomatoes, cheese grits, and fried chicken. Delicious! And the seating was well spread out, so we were safely distant from others while we were eating.
When we got back to our hotel room, we turned on the television to see if MSNBC had any election news. This was the day the story broke about Trump calling the Georgia Secretary of State, asking him to “find” 11,780 votes so he could win the state. Fortunately Secretary Raffensperger, even though a Republican, refused to be pressured by Trump. He had taped the phone call, which lasted more than an hour, but had not planned to make it public until Trump tweeted about it, disparaging Raffensperger and misrepresenting what was said on the call. We hoped that the news of this call, coming two days before Election Day, would provide extra motivation to Democrats to go out and vote in the Senate runoff.
Day 3 -Monday, January 4 We were both on the Vote Review Panel in Douglas County. In some counties the panel consisted of one Democrat, one Republican, and one elections worker, but in Douglas it was just two Democrats and two Republicans, although if there had been a tie vote, an elections worker would have broken the tie. We had two jobs, duplication and adjudication. In the case of a ballot that the computer couldn’t read because it was torn, or wrinkled, or an overseas or military ballot that didn’t have the bar coding around the edges, we had to duplicate the ballot on a new form, clipping the old and new ones together, and all four of us initialing it to say that it had been copied correctly. In the case of a ballot that the computer couldn’t read because of an overvote (too many marks on the page) or an undervote (circles not filled in completely enough), we had to determine who the voter intended to vote for. Our Zoom training had suggested that this would be a contentious process, but in our case it was not. There was no disagreement about any of the ballots. And the exciting thing was that about 80% of them were for Warnock and Ossoff.
I did have a run-in with a Republican panel member. Our work space was a table in the lobby of the Douglas County Courthouse, and much of the time we were sitting around waiting for the next batch of ballots to arrive. Anyone going to any of the county offices passed right by us, and many people asked us how to find whatever office they were looking for. A young woman came in to “cure” her mother’s ballot. This was a process used when someone had to vote a provisional ballot because they didn’t have ID, or voted in the wrong precinct. All they had to do to make the ballot official was to bring in the appropriate documentation. The woman, who was Black, approached our table and asked where to do this. One of the Republican women jumped up and said, I’ll show you. As she started to take her down the hall, I got up and followed. I thought she might be tricking her in some way, maybe having her leave the curing documents in the wrong place. Seemed like a good idea to check. It turned out she did take her to the right place, and when she turned around and saw me behind her, she got angry. “Can I help you?” she said to me in an imperious tone of voice. “I have just as much right to be here as you do!” I replied. She muttered a few more things and so did I, as we went back to sit down across from each other at the table. “Why don’t you go back to California – that’s where you belong!” she snarled, as if that were the biggest insult she could think of. She also told me that she believed that the election was in God’s hands, “but you probably don’t believe that, do you?” I said “no, if God controlled elections, he [of course her God is a he] would not have allowed Donald Trump to become President.” And then, before she could say anything in response, I added “but I really don’t think we should be talking politics.” After that we glared at each other a bit, but had to keep working together for the rest of the afternoon. Luckily my husband and the other Republican woman did their best to keep the conversation light.
Day 4 -Tuesday, January 5, Election Day We were assigned to be poll watchers at Avondale High School in DeKalb County, a heavily Democratic county. The polls opened at 7 a.m., so we were asked to be there at 6. Yikes! The school was a half hour away from our hotel, so we got up at 4:30 a.m. to make sure we would get there on time. That’s 1:30 a.m. Pacific Time, but luckily we were mostly adjusted to Eastern Time. When we got there at 6, there was one voter already standing outside. He said he always liked to be the first one at the polls. But when he explained that he came so early to avoid having to wait in line, I had to laugh, because even though there wasn’t a line, he still had to wait for an hour before he could vote.
My husband and I were planning to alternate who was the outside poll watcher and who was the inside. I started outside, and reported that there were 18 people in line when the school opened promptly at 7. But within ten minutes, everyone was inside and voting, and throughout the day there was never a line outside. So we both stayed inside, only checking outside periodically to see if a line had formed or if anyone was hassling voters as they arrived, but neither happened. So we sat at one end of the large room (probably a gymnasium), along with the Republican poll watchers, and just watched all day. This polling place had a wonderful group of election workers, mostly Black women of all different ages, one white man who pointedly mentioned his husband, and one young white woman who was the same age as my son Ben and turned out to have gone on the same trip to Israel in 2004. (Small world!) Also on hand was an employee of Dominion Voting Systems, so that any malfunction in any of the machines could be immediately fixed. The gay man paid for lunch to be brought in for all the poll workers, and invited us and the Republicans to join them. It was delicious, and very much appreciated since we were required to stay there straight through until the polls closed at 7 p.m.
We were prepared for any problem that might occur. We had a stack of cards ready to give out to voters who were denied a ballot or voted a provisional ballot. I only had occasion to give one of them out, to a woman who seemed a bit confused and thought she might have already mailed in an absentee ballot, but wasn’t sure. I told her to call this number and they could check for her.
At about 6:40 p.m. we got a text asking us to go to a different polling place a few miles away, where there was a line out the door, and our help was needed to make sure that everyone who arrived by 7 p.m. was allowed to vote. We jumped in the car and raced over there, but when we got there, it was a false alarm, there was no line, there was one Democratic poll watcher there who had everything under control, and they were getting ready to close up. We could have gone back to Avondale High, but we had already said emotional good-byes to everyone there, so it seemed anticlimactic. One of our assigned duties was to photograph the final vote tallies when they were taken out of the machines and taped to the window, but I had asked the young woman who had gone to Israel with Ben to take the picture and send it to me. Here it is, she sent it with a message that said “We did amazing!!” Not sure if you can read it – the totals are Perdue 96-Ossoff 208; Loeffler 88-Warnock 215.
Day 5 -Wednesday, January 6 On Wednesday we were back at the Douglas County Courthouse to continue working on the Vote Review Panel. Luckily, the two Republicans there were not the same ones who had been there Monday. These two were much more civil. We finished up with all the ballots in the early afternoon, and the elections office confirmed that there were not going to be any more, so we were done. My husband wanted to go out and celebrate! I still wasn’t sure about the outcome of the election (I had texted my nephew that morning, when he asked me how it was going, “I’m glad I came, no matter how it turns out”). We asked the Republicans, who were locals, for restaurant suggestions, and they recommended a Cajun restaurant nearby, so we went there for our maybe celebration. Only a few tables were occupied, and they were widely spread out, so we felt safe. We ordered a Cajun Sampler that included crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole, jambalaya, chicken & sausage gumbo, and red beans & rice. It may not look like that much food, but it was more than enough for both of us, especially when we were also sharing that enormous beer.
When we drove back to the hotel after lunch, we turned on MSNBC to find out the latest vote totals. That was when we learned about the insurrection that was going on at the Capitol. Shocking! Here’s what I wrote on facebook at around 3:30 p.m. “I was planning to post more about my adventures in Georgia, but what is going on in D.C. right now is so shocking that I can’t even.” We were glued to the TV all afternoon and evening, and ate dinner in our room.
Day 6 -Thursday, January 7 We emailed Georgia Dems to say that all of our assignments were finished, we were here for two more days, and did they have anything else they wanted us to do. They sent us off to a fourth county, Henry County, to help with processing absentee ballots. Apparently this county still had a lot to do. We were just to show up and say that we were there to help. They were thrilled to have us, and swore us in as county elections workers. There was a huge room, with rows and rows of tables covered with bins that had file folders full of absentee ballot applications. Then there were stacks of absentee ballots, still sealed in their envelopes, and our job was to find the application in the bin, take it out, and paper clip it to the ballot envelope. We were assigned to work on the bin of names beginning with M for a while, although later spent time filling in on various other letters while people went to lunch or on break. It was mind-numbing work. We were of course wearing our N-95 masks, which by this point were getting really uncomfortable, and we were also wearing gloves. The filing system for the applications didn’t make much sense to us, and also it wasn’t consistent from one letter bin to another. We worked on this for about five hours, and then went out to get a late lunch. But once we got to the car, we realized that neither of us could stand the idea of going back inside. Sorry, Henry County. We just left, grabbed food along the way, and drove back to the hotel. It seemed as if there should have been a way to computerize the county records, instead of having to find every application by hand to match up to a ballot. Did they go through this process all over again for every election? Probably so, but we were done. It was time to get back to our room and MSNBC. More news was still coming out about Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol. And there was supposed to be a Zoom celebration of our now seemingly-certain Senate victories, but that got lost in the events in Washington.
Day 7 -Friday, January 8 I wanted to contact the Georgia Dems again to see if there was anything else we could help with, other than processing absentee ballots in Henry County. But my husband had had enough. He had been doing all the driving to get to all these different counties, and was pretty exhausted. So we basically just hung out on Friday, watching MSNBC, catching up on email, reading a little, finishing up the food in our fridge, and waiting until it was time to go home. We had booked a return flight for Saturday based on how the general election had gone in Georgia, where Biden’s victory wasn’t sealed until the Saturday after the election. It turned out the runoff didn’t take as much time to get resolved. The uncounted absentee ballots in Henry County wouldn’t affect the outcome because Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans there by a 2-to-1 margin.
Day 8 -Saturday, January 9 Off to the airport and home to Sacramento! Wearing the plastic face shields again. They are really awful, but I didn’t want to end up getting Covid in the airport. Waiting in line for security was the worst, people were not social distancing, and while I almost always get TSA precheck, of course this was the one time I didn’t. What a nightmare! Luckily the flight was on time, and Delta kept all the middle seats open, so once we got on the plane it was fine.