I spent Election Day in a high school cafeteria, helping to count absentee ballots in Ann Arbor, Mich. I started at 7 a.m. and didn’t leave or have contact with the outside world until my shift ended 13 hours later. All of us either left our phones in our vehicles or checked the devices in at the door. Especially during an election this stressful, it was a relief to feel busy and useful and disconnected from the news — rather than anxious and paralyzed, endlessly scrolling for an update.
The next day, I saw the theory proliferating online that ballots had “magically” surfaced in Michigan. At a counting center in Detroit, Trump supporters showed up and pounded on the windows and doors, demanding that the count be stopped and that they be let in. Rumors spread about other states, too, as commentators seized on mundane parts of the process as a sign of fraud — even things like some counties pausing the count overnight, to give poll workers some rest.
Those claims are totally detached from reality — from the painstaking, tedious process of accounting for and tabulating every ballot. The count involves so many steps, so many layers of double-checking and supervision, that it would be virtually impossible to fake even a single ballot. It’s dangerous to suggest that anyone could fake enough ballots to change the result. From my experience, it’s also totally absurd.
From the moment I walked into the building, I was sequestered for the day. We couldn’t leave, other than to step outside and eat. (Sandwiches were provided for lunch and dinner.) We weren’t even allowed to go out to our cars. We learned only after we showed up who else would be on our vote count board — a unit of election inspectors tasked with processing ballots for a specified list of precincts — and what task we’d get for the day; no one could coordinate anything beforehand. My board had about seven people. Each of us was identified by our political party, so that each board could include a mix of Democrats and Republicans.
When we arrived in the morning, there were sealed bags of ballots, one for each of the three precincts assigned to our center. The city clerk had already checked that each person casting a ballot was registered to vote and that the identification number on their ballot and signature on the outer envelope matched the ones on the voter rolls. The clerk had also determined a total vote count and drawn up a list of ballots in that batch, and local police had watched the bags until our arrival. Precinct by precinct, we counted the ballots in the bags, making sure the number matched the total on the clerk’s list. Then we divided the ballots into stacks and began.
My job was at the front of the line: I took the outer envelope, checked again that it was signed and that the number on the outside matched the one on the ballot stub. Then I checked to ensure that the ballot hadn’t been erroneously assigned to the wrong precinct. I took the ballot out of its outer envelope. I tore off the ballot’s stub, which stuck out at the top of the privacy sleeve, and set that aside. Eventually, I brought the pile of sleeved ballots to the next station. Occasionally, a voter didn’t quite close the sleeve correctly, but even so, the process prevented me from getting a sense of how people voted. Once the ballot was out of its envelope, but still in its sleeve, and the stub had been torn off, the link between the voter’s name and how they voted is broken. The work was repetitive, but not especially mentally taxing — it was almost meditative.
At the next station, another volunteer took the ballot out of the privacy sleeve and made sure it was filled in correctly, in black or blue ink. Then they brought it to a tabulator, a high-speed, automated machine that processed ballots in batches of 50, outputting results automatically. If a ballot wasn’t filled in correctly — if the marks were in highlighter, say — then the ballot went to the duplicator table, staffed by one Democrat and one Republican. According to very strict rules, they copied over that ballot’s markings onto a fresh ballot, even there were mistakes (like voting for two presidential candidates instead of one). The original was kept as a record, and the fixed copy went to the tabulator to be scanned.
It would take a level of effort I can’t even comprehend to circumvent that process. The sheer volume of ballots, their exact ID numbers, the number of people involved who have never met one another and don’t have much opportunity to talk and don’t have their cellphones — all those layers add up to keep the process fair and the count accurate. Michigan also allows all political parties, as well as some nonpartisan groups, to each have one election challenger at the count. They walked around, taking notes. They could stand behind us and watch us work, and they could ask questions at any time about what we were doing and how we were doing it. We had about a dozen people circulating around the space, watching us all day. It was odd to feel that supervised, but I was glad to have them in the room. They would interrupt to ask things like “What are you doing now?” or “Can you explain that to me?” but the tone wasn’t confrontational. Things proceeded smoothly. Over 24 hours, Ann Arbor processed about 55,000 absentee votes, or 93 percent of the absentee ballots it had issued.
In the following days, it made me angry — angrier than I thought I would be — to see people dismiss all that work out of hand with no basis at all, or based on wild, concocted claims. This was my first time participating in vote-counting, and I saw how much work and care and attention go into ensuring that our elections run well. The cooked-up outrage, all those accusations or insinuations, also just felt dumb. They betray a profound lack of knowledge about the process — a process that is completely knowable, if you take a moment to learn.
For those 13 hours that we counted our city’s ballots, it felt like a bubble of calm amid the country’s chaos. Across party lines, we were working together on something important. At lunch, still phone-less, we chatted about our jobs and our lives in the city and the first thing we would do when the coronavirus pandemic was over. We were all identified by our party registrations, but no one talked about whom they voted for. We participated in our democracy, and there was no ugliness about it.
The past four years have been so discouraging and divisive, and it has made a lot of Americans feel that our country’s institutions are totally broken. But this one, small, crucial thing actually does work. I wish more people could see that.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.
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