Susan J. Leclair, PhD

As with many working couples, my husband and I had an average relationship with our town. We paid our taxes and complained but did little more. After retirement, we started to become more active and thus began to interact with the people who worked in the town offices. The new town clerk arrived in September, having essentially one month to learn about the town’s policies and procedures while getting ready for the 2020 Election Day.

Photo credit: Tiffany Tertipes, Unsplash

Author Susan Leclair volunteered to count early ballots in her town for the 2020 election. She found many similarities to working in the lab.

On October 22, we showed up at 9 am to volunteer to help get the voting machines certified and ready to work. Together with the chairpersons of the town’s two political committees and a few others, we sat down to mark-up test ballots. Each person created 50 test ballots and tallied each vote by hand. Thus, for example, there were votes for each of the four candidates for president, one vote for U.S. senator, and so on down to the state-wide ballot initiates.

Our town has nine precincts of about 3,000 registered voters, and each machine has one main counter memory chip and a back-up, so each set of ballots was then counted for a total of 18 times. Each run had to numerically match the totals of each set of test ballots. A tech rep from the manufacturer of the voting machines stayed for the entire day to correct any mechanical or electronic issues that might arise. It seemed to us that we were back in the laboratory running calibration, reference range construction, and quality control routines. We left around 4 pm that day. And, as many of you would do and have done when you are busy, we had skipped lunch to get this done.

The secretary of state allowed cities and towns to count early in-person, absentee, and mail-in ballots. We decided to help out, for as the famous last words adage says, “After all, how hard could this be?”

On the night before our arrival, the town clerk’s team had taken all of that day’s in-person, absentee, and mail in ballots and opened the outer envelope and removed the inner envelope. They then determined that the ballot envelope was completed correctly or not. Those valid envelopes were then reported by name, address, and precinct number to the Secretary of State’s Office. That office then entered them into the state application, which allowed voters to track the status of their ballots. The local officials then sorted all ballots by precinct, then by street and number. Finally, they alphabetized all the ballot envelopes by name. This took approximately six hours each night with the town officials rarely going home before 2 am. These boxes of precinct-sorted inner envelopes faced us each morning.

“It seemed to us that we were back in the laboratory running calibration, reference range construction, and quality control routines.”

At 9 am, we were set up as pairs. Pair One had one person read the information on the envelope as the other person checked the official voter registration list. That meant making sure that Smith, John J., Sr., was recorded and not Smith, John J., Jr., or Smith, John T. Any ballots not completely matching the register were held for additional screening. For example, an envelope marked Smith, John J. (no Sr. or Jr.), was held until Election Day when it would be determined if another Smith, John J., had voted and which one. If there was no other Smith, John J., the town clerk would contact Smith, John J., and ask who voted and would that person come in and, as it was said in other states, “cure” the ballot. In like manner, ballots with names not corresponding to the voter registration list and ballots with incomplete or illegible information were followed up.

Pair Two, or Pair One if there were not enough people for a real assembly line, then opened each envelope and removed the ballot, taking care not to damage the ballot in any way. Any damage, no matter how trivial, meant that the ballot would be hand tallied. No automated envelope openers. The second person then unfolded each ballot, checked to make sure that the voter’s choices could be counted by machine, and made sure that all folds were made as smoothly as possible, since folds cause the counting machines to jam.

Did people follow directions? Of course … not. There were ballots in red ink, in pencil, or using check marks or Xs. Some people wrote down their choice in the write-in space, even though the person’s name was on the printed ballot. Some folded the ballots perpendicular to the original folds. At least in this situation, we didn’t need to contact a person for a specimen redraw. We simply put them aside for a manual count. If the town officials could ascertain the voter’s intent, it was counted by hand.

Finally, the ballots made their way to the counter. The machine was identified for Precinct 1 and each readable ballot was entered. The machine is set up for voting day, so there is a 10-second lag between each ballot. Each precinct has about 3,000 voters, and it appeared that the early in-person and the mail-in/absentee ballots accounted for approximately 1,800 ballots. If all went well, six ballots per minute would have a potential of five hours for a complete count of each one of nine precincts, or 45 hours of perfect coordination between ballot counter and instrumentation.

Jams slowed things down. Putting in the next ballot early results in a jam. Putting the ballot in at an angle results in a jam. A ballot with significant folds results in a jam. And then there were the, “I have no clue why this one is not being accepted” jams. All rejected ballots, regardless of cause, were put aside for a manual count.

Manual counts were performed by two election officials with each maintaining their own tally. After a batch was counted, the two tallies had to agree, or they had to start again. For our state, that meant tallies for 11 individual races. Other states had larger ballots.

We worked every day from 9 am to 5 pm for six days. When we went home, we heard citizens say we were inept and stupid. As we begun, so we ended—in the clinical laboratory.

Susan J. Leclair is Chancellor Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.