This past election a group of my friends and I hopped on a plane in the middle of a pandemic and flew to the battleground state of Georgia to become poll watchers. It’s no secret that our elections system is in desperate need of reform, but on election day I was able to witness firsthand how vastly different and challenging voting is in a traditionally red state compared to my home state of Colorado.
So I invite you to take a step back with me during that day and see what it’s like to be a poll watcher in a state that has a long history of voter suppression.
4:30 am (2:30 am Denver Time): Four friends and I loaded in a car and headed thirty-something miles from Atlanta south to Henry County. We dropped off our San Francisco friend at his polling center before my Colorado friend and I were dropped off at ours. 198 out-of-state volunteers were in Georgia, risking Covid-19, spending their own money and taking time from their families, jobs and lives to ensure a fair election. Between the anxiety of the election, my poll observer duties and daylight savings just taking place, along with the two hour difference in time zones, I got less than four hours of sleep before my early alarm.
People asked and continue to ask, why go to Georgia? For starters, Michigan does not allow out of state poll observers, and we had been told that Arizona had enough active volunteers but Georgia – a dead tie for many months leading into the election – was where volunteers were needed the most. After witnessing the brazen attempts to suppress votes during the Kemp/Abrams Governor race in 2018, we felt and hoped that we could make a difference.
In the past five years, Kemp’s office has purged thousands of voters, with over 70% of them being voters of color. According to the Brennan Center, Kemp’s office purged roughly 1.5 million registered voters between the 2012 and 2016 elections, and a recent report from American Public Media finds that around 107,000 of these voters were purged due to a controversial “use it or lose it” law that removes voters from the rolls if they don’t vote within a certain amount of time. These brazen attempts to rig the election are a total perversion of our Democracy, and it’s a disgrace that the state was allowed to get away with it for so long.
After all, during the 2018 election it was Brian Kemp that refused to recuse himself from his then-position as Secretary of State while being a candidate for governor. As I write, there are multiple lawsuits in Georgia, from concerns of over 50,000 voter registrations being put on hold to local voting machines not working during the 2018 election. Kemp’s own comments have only fueled the fire, with leaked audio of him complaining about increased voter turnout this election cycle.
I find it embarrassing that in the year 2020, volunteers are needed to ensure all legal Americans can vote. As a Coloradan, where our state has primarily voted by mail since 2013, I find it disgusting that citizens have to take time from work, risk sickness and even death, to wait in lines just to cast a vote. When I started my poll observation shift on November 3, 2.6 million Coloradans had already voted. Less than 100,000 Coloradans would cast a ballot on election day. For those who feel like going to a polling station, whether for nostalgia or other reasons, no one should be forced to do so because the politicians of their state are set on diminishing one of the greatest American rights.
6:04 a.m: My co-volunteer and I walked into the church being repurposed for a polling station. We wore our poll observer badges and introduced ourselves to the polling station workers and manager, showing our certification letters to the manager. My friend then went to the foyer to set-up his position as an outside line observer. I introduced myself to the Republican poll observer. She and I were inside poll station observers. Everyone inside at this hour whether Republican, Independent or Democrat, were now all volunteers. Everyone was wearing a mask and no one wore a uniform.
I asked the Republican poll observer, “Will people have to wear masks and will temperatures be taken before voters can enter the polling station?”
“People without masks and or people who could have COVID can come inside to vote?,” I asked, noticing two voters in masks, forming a line.
“Yes,” she said, asking who I was with.
“I’m a volunteer poll watcher for the Georgia Democratic party,” I answered, sharing that in Colorado, we primarily vote by mail-in and there were no early voting stations. I told her that only a small percentage of Coloradans would vote today and we would announce results this evening.
I then asked her, “Why does GA ask people registering to state their ethnicity, as in Asian, Black, Latino or White?”
Without missing a beat, she answered, “So we can keep track of the Democrats.”
It was only 6:11 a.m. and I walked away knowing it was going to be a long day. I was disappointed although not surprised by her racist comment. I was born and raised in Louisiana, the oldest son of two blatantly racist Republican parents. Long before I was a Democrat, I attended the Reagan-Bush-Quayle convention in 1988. I knew then, like I know now, Republicans do not want the masses voting. I remember Paul Weyrich, a Republican operative who commented in 1980, “I don’t want everybody to vote.” He was a leader of the modern conservative movement and spoke to a gathering of religious leaders. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down,” he said.
7:00 a.m.: Around 40 people were waiting in line. This would be the longest line of the day and only a few individuals didn’t wear masks. But our orders were to count the ballots of every person that queued to vote regardless of their adherence to wearing PPE.
8:30 a.m.: I saw the first voter turned away and when she exited the polling station I was there to ask, “Ma’am, what was the issue?”
“They said I’m not registered in this district.”
“Do you have time to go to the precinct where you are registered?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I need to get to work and I don’t know if I can make it after work.” She uttered slowly and jittery. She was a white woman and she wore a grey hoodie and under her hoodie I saw she had red hair and on her neck, multiple tattoos.
“You have the right to cast a provisional ballot,” I informed her.
She asked what this was and I explained, walking her into the station. I took her to the volunteers. They were not informed about provisional ballots although once they checked with the polling manager, all of us were assured provisional ballots were an option.
After she cast her provisional ballot she walked up to me and said, “Thank you so much. I’m so happy I was able to vote.” This gave me chills of happiness and I walked out with her. I asked if she was comfortable sharing who she voted when she quickly said, “Biden.”
It is important to note that poll observers cannot speak with voters inside the premises. Our main job was listening and observing voting issues. For instance, a dozen or more people came in asking to have their absentee ballots canceled so that they could physically vote. I watched as the polling manager called the elections board and verified whether the person was registered and their ballot received. Proper ID’s had to be presented and then, verified by the elections office. There was also verification of whether the ballot had been received or not. Once everything verified that the absentee ballot had not been received, the person could vote. I walked out with a few of these folks to understand their scenarios. They had not felt confident their absentee ballots would be received or counted.
Dozens came in to be told they were registered in another county. Many departed for their proper station while others cast provisional ballots, due to schedules, distance, or work. Throughout the entire twelve hours of voting, I saw only one person who tried to vote before being told he was not registered. I walked out and asked him, “What happened, sir?” He was a white man in his thirties with a full beard, blue jeans, baseball cap, and flip flops. He shared that he moved out of state and only recently returned. He was hoping he was still registered but he had been removed. He shared that he had not yet re-registered.
Georgia has one of the strictest deadlines in the country; if you want to vote on Election Day, you must register at least 29 days in advance. Deadlines like these are unnecessarily draconian. As of 2020, 21 states plus the District of Columbia have same day voter registration. Despite the rhetoric coming from the Trump campaign, voter fraud is almost a non-issue. Every election cycle there are so few cases of identifiable fraud that organizing entire elections around the possibility of fraud only serves to disenfranchise potential voters. In fact, only 491 national cases of absentee ballot fraud were found from 2000 to 2012, a period in which billions of votes were cast.
Voting is so much easier and simpler back home in Colorado. There, our ballots were mailed on Friday, October 9th. My wife, mother-in-law, and I received our ballots before 11 a.m. the following day. The next day my wife and I traveled just under a mile from our house to the local drop-off box where my daughter took a picture of us dropping off our ballots. Two days later, my wife and I received a receipt verifying our ballots while also informing us that my mother-in-law’s was rejected and further verification was required. She had recently moved from Texas to Colorado, and this was her first time voting in the state. Using a passport, my mother-in-law verified herself, the issue was resolved and her vote was counted. It’s shocking to me that this simple, streamlined process is somehow unreplicable in other states. Every citizen should have the ease of voting that we are able to experience here in Colorado.
For all of us who want a free republic, a working American Democracy, we must gain back our trust in the voting process. It’s essential that we have national same day voter registration, mail-in-voting, and absentee voting. A universal set of laws and rules for voting is desperately needed.
10 a.m. to 3 p.m.: The stream of voters drastically slowed down, likely because many were off working. The outside poll observer was no longer needed and we gave each other breaks, with one of us inside at all times. It was a beautiful, crisp, blue day and at 1 P.M., I went behind the church, under a shaded tree, listened to the birds and thought about how there wouldn’t be a midday lull if election day was a national holiday. Some voters would still have to work of course, but there would be guaranteed paid time off for those workers to be able to visit the polls. Lost in my daydream of a more equitable country, I dozed off for a brief nap.
3 p.m.: The stream of voters picked up, but we never had lines. The polling volunteers started shouting “First time voter” when a young voter checked in or a voter told someone this was their first time. Everyone clapped and shouted ‘congratulations.’ No one discriminated against gender, race and we did not know party affiliation – we just cheered.
4:30 p.m.: I walked out and spoke with many first time voters. I met an 18-year-old Hispanic college freshman who only voted because her semester was now online and she happened to be home. She shared with me that she wiped out her mom’s Trump vote, because she voted Biden. I met dozens of young African Americans who told me that they were motivated by rage against Trump, mentioning Charlottesville and white nationalists. I met a 41-year-old Black man who had been a citizen for almost twenty years and never voted – he voted Biden. He also shared with me that Shaquille O’Neal motivated him to vote.
8:00 p.m.: My friend and I, along with the deputy sheriff who had been on site since 6:30 a.m. helped pack away chairs, move tables and organize the church. My friend and I could not leave – It was our volunteer duty to remain until the machines printed out the total and then, take a picture of the results. This is the only picture allowed to be taken within the polling station. Both the Republican and Democrat volunteer polling station workers are allowed to take pictures although the republican volunteer had departed. There was also a woman from a non-partisan observer group. The tape was printed around 8:10 and then, taped inside the station door so that the results showed out.
In our precinct, not counting provisional ballots, there were 288 Biden, 206 Trump, 10 Jorgensen and 4 write-ins. Similar margins for Ossoff against Perdue in our station and for the 3-way race, more names.
If we had universal mail-in and I would have been in Denver spending election night with my wife and kids, but nonetheless I felt we had made a difference in the democratic process. My friends felt the same.
As Trump refuses to concede and the national Republican party goes along with this charade, It is obvious that trust in our elections has been gravely damaged. It’s also obvious we live in a very divided country. To heal just a little and gain back some trust. It’s time to fix the election system. The system in many states is damaged although not broken. Many states, red and blue alike, have gotten it right. The next step is simply making these rules nationwide, so we can guarantee all Americans their most fundamental right.