By Kathryn McConnell
Washington — When Virginia college student Emily Dallas voted for the first time in 2008, the experience prompted her to become more involved in her community.
Nearly four years later, she was one of almost 30 would-be election officers in an afternoon training class, one of several that Fairfax County, Virginia, scheduled in spring 2012.
Sitting next to her in class was Madeline Donaldson, a U.S. Army veteran who has been voting since 1972. She views ensuring the integrity of the election and enabling citizens to have a positive experience as they exercise their right to vote as one of “personal responsibility,” a spirit echoed by many in the class who described participation as a “civic duty.”
Behind them sat Christopher Aaront, recently returned from a stint in the Peace Corps working on an environmental protection project in Romblon, Philippines. Because his mother has been an election officer, he knew what was involved and wanted to join the ranks.
Another college student, Dalia Desouky, learned of the training from an email she received from the county government.
At the beginning of training, would-be Fairfax election officials subscribe to principles that say: “It is our sacred honor to protect and promote public trust and confidence by our conduct of accurate and fair elections.”
The principles continue, “As the public’s guardians of freedom within a democratic society, we are responsible for the integrity of the process. Our role demands that these principles must be placed above personal or partisan gain.”
ELECTION OFFICER DUTIES
Fairfax is Virginia’s largest county with nearly 1.2 million residents — more people than live in eight U.S. states — and it is always seeking registered voters who want to train as election officers. (The states with fewer people than Fairfax County are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, according to trainer Lucan Baranyk.)
The position is a volunteer role that requires officials to be at the polls from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. (sometimes later) with only short breaks. Officers are not allowed to leave the polling station until all the votes are counted and the voting equipment safely packed up for return to country headquarters, said trainer Adrienne Free.
About 3,000 officers serve in every general election in the county’s 239 precincts. Virginia’s 2012 Republican primary election is March 6. The general election throughout the United States is November 6.
Jobs at the polls vary. Some officials start the day by placing signs to direct voters to the entrance and exit of the polling station, usually a school, church or library. The signs tell voters how to cast their votes using either an electronic machine or a paper ballot.
When the polls open at 6 a.m., officials take turns welcoming voters, affirming their identities and addresses, and checking them in. Often secondary school students volunteer to assist with greeting voters and helping disabled voters, but they may not operate voting machines.
Officials monitor the flow of voters waiting in line, and help elderly voters or people with disabilities to safely enter and exit the polling place and use a handicapped-accessible voting machine if needed. Officials watch for election machine malfunctions and for voters who need to be relieved of coffee, food or other items that could damage a voting machine.
Voters uncertain about where they should vote can consult an election official or the county website to determine the correct polling place.
Election officers enforce the rules prohibiting “electioneering” too close to where ballots are cast. Political campaign workers may hand out literature outside the polls but must remain 40 feet (12 meters) or more away from the entrance. Members of the media may enter polling stations but only to film voters who have consented to be filmed showing the process of voting.
The polling chief officer is responsible for the overall operation of the precinct. The assistant chief, who usually does not represent the same political party as the chief, serves as a back-up, answering any election officers’ questions that may arise.
When the polls close at 7 p.m. the officers tally the votes cast at each machine, and the chief delivers the results to the county’s elections office. Representatives from each party are entitled to witness this process but may not interfere.
Counties’ election rules can vary, but the objective of ensuring a reliable and confidential voting process is the same across Virginia, said Free, an officer since 1988.
That goal is being pursued across the nation, and the experience of those Fairfax volunteers is being repeated by legions of volunteers in schools, libraries and fire stations as America gets ready to vote.