National

‘What could possibly go wrong?’

Chris Anderson, the supervisor of elections in Seminole County, Fla., on the risks of running a presidential election in a pandemic
SANFORD, FL - SEPT 17: Christopher Anderson, the Seminole County Supervisor of Elections is in charge of ensuring the safety of approximately 300,000 voters in the Florida county. (Photo by Edward Linsmier for The Washington Post)

I believe in the power of positive thinking. That’s the only way that I can do this job and stay sane. I’m supervising a presidential election, in Florida, in a potential swing county, with all kinds of voter distrust, while we’re also dealing with a global pandemic. What could possibly go wrong, you know? I try to laugh about it. It’s a crazy situation, but that’s been the story of my life. I embrace the challenges. I read leadership books at night, and then I try to start each morning with an optimistic mind-set that carries me into the day.

About this series
Voices from the Pandemic is an oral history of covid-19 and those affected.

The first thing I do is check my messages. I got in to work the other day and there were 96 voice mails or texts from voters. This job is a little like being a referee. If everything’s going well, most people don’t notice an election supervisor. But the crowd gets after you if there’s confusion and fear, and that’s what we’re living through now. I had one message from a lady with asthma who hadn’t been outside in months, and she was terrified of going to vote. “What if this is how I catch the virus?” Another woman had seen a story on Facebook saying mobs of poll watchers might stand near the voting booths. “Do they at least have to wear masks?” I hear theories about how precincts will become super-spreader sites, or armed militias will take over precincts, or postal workers will steal mail-in votes in some big conspiracy. I have to be the myth buster. I call every person back, even if it takes all day.

My wife is right in this with me, and she saw me on the phone the other night and said I looked stressed. I told her: “Multiply that feeling by the 328,000 voters in this county, and that’s about where I’m at.”

I don’t blame people for being on edge. I try to put myself in their shoes. I’m a visual learner, so I took one of our rooms at work and staged it as a precinct. We ran through the whole voting process to assess the risks. First you have to check in on a tablet that probably 500 other people have already handled on Election Day, so that’s a potential exposure. Then you sign in using a little stylus, and it’s covered in all kinds of germs. The voting booths are too close together. They don’t have Plexiglas barriers. Then you pick up the pen. That’s another exposure. You touch the secrecy shield. Exposure. It’s one hazard after the next. We have 80 precincts in Seminole County, and every one needed a safety overhaul. I came up with a list of about 100 issues we needed to solve.

Like those styluses. That seems like an easy fix, right? Just make them disposable. Just buy them in bulk so there’s one for each voter. But the price tag on that was about $250,000, and our whole budget for the presidential election cycle is $3.9 million. I wouldn’t be able to pay my poll workers. I’d have to close precincts. So we started experimenting with stuff in the office, and someone on my staff figured out that if you roll tinfoil around the stem of a Q-tip and dampen the tip with a sponge, that transfers the electricity to the touch screen, and it actually works out pretty well. We started driving to every Dollar Tree in the area and bought all the Q-tips we could find. People were hoarding toilet paper, and meanwhile I was filling shopping carts with Q-tips, five bucks for 1,500. We cut them in half and rolled tinfoil around the stems. My kids made some. My wife got into it. We stayed up late making Q-tips and watching “Game of Thrones.” Now we have more than a hundred thousand ready to go.

Chris Anderson, 38, is the supervisor of elections in Seminole County, Fla. He shows a sample of an improvised safety stylus. Q-tips wrapped in tinfoil give voters a disposable instrument to use on the touch screen voting machines. (Edward Linsmier for The Washington Post)

I feel like MacGyver in this job. One problem solved, another 99 to go. Our pens need to be cleaned between each voter, so I found a friend who works in emergency operations, and he gave us 300 gallons of disinfectant. We tested a bunch of pens in the solution, and they all dried out except for this one cheap brand, so I bought those out of stock. But now I’ve got another problem, because I need airtight containers in each precinct where I can store these pens in the disinfectant. Otherwise this stuff is going to be sloshing all over the place, spilling on the floor, maybe dripping on things. Now I’m losing sleep over this. Now I’m thinking about election security and how I can make this all work. Then one day I’m having lunch and eating my pho noodle soup, and I look down at the container, and a lightbulb went off. This is it! It was just barely tall enough to fit a pen, and the lid closed up real tight. I started going to the different pho places outside Orlando, testing out these plastic to-go containers. I’m the crazy guy in the parking lot, kicking these different pho soups around and dropping them on the sidewalk to see which ones break. “It’s okay, folks. I’m fine. I’m just trying to run a presidential election.”

That’s Democracy in 2020. That’s me trying to protect your right to go vote.

I joke about it, but this process is sacred to me. I’m a Republican, but I tell people all the time that my job is about principles over politics. I love this country. My life goes a different way if I’m born any place else. I was surrounded by so much failure growing up. My mother wasn’t around. My father was into drugs and alcohol, until eventually he got AIDS. I’d get home from school and find cans of Natural Ice beer lying around, because he used those for his crack pipes. He got so high one time he tried to stab me with a butcher’s knife. We moved again whenever the electricity and the water got turned off, and I became obsessed with doing something different with my life. I joined the military and deployed to Afghanistan after 9/11. I came back and started rising up through law enforcement. I chose not to be a victim.

We’re all free to make our own choices in life. That’s the gift of being in this country. Voting is one of those choices. It’s a reflection of our values and a chance to improve our lives. It might sound corny, but it’s worthy of protecting.

I’d never really heard about this position until the governor decided to appoint me. I was getting interested in politics, but supervisor of elections? I guess a part of me wondered if that might be a little dry. But it’s been the opposite. It’s under threat. We’ve got covid-19 making us vulnerable every time we leave the house. We’ve got voting methods being dissected all the way up to the White House. We’ve got third-party groups trying to confuse voters, pushing out all kinds of misinformation, sending scam mail about registering their dogs or their dead relatives. I started an election academy for voters to see behind the curtain, and now we do some trainings over Zoom. We go over ballot design, absentee voting — all of that. You might think it sounds kind of boring, but demand was off the charts. We spent eight weeks dispelling rumors and rebuilding that trust. I told them: “Every vote is going to matter in this election. Every vote will be counted, no matter how you cast it.”

We encourage them to vote by mail, because to me that’s the safest. You never leave the house. We’ve gotten 106,000 vote-by-mail requests, which is way more than ever before. That’s how I vote, and that’s the way the president has voted before in Florida. I don’t understand the controversy. It’s safe and secure.

Or you can go vote in person. We redesigned all 80 precincts, and now our voting booths have Plexiglas safety shields, and they’re spaced six feet apart. We created a new staff position in each precinct for disinfecting and covid safety. We have the cleaning procedures down to a science. We want to make it simple and worry-free.

You just sign in with the Q-tip, grab a pen from the pho container, lean down under the Plexiglas and cast your vote for president of the United States.

eli.saslow@washpost.com

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