Election Day Observations from Behind the Red Curtain
As one of those San Francisco Liberals you may have heard about, I have no illusions about living in a bubble. If the shock I (like so many others) felt on November 8, 2016, didn’t convince me that there were large swaths of America well beyond my comprehension, certainly everything that’s transpired over the subsequent four years has more than adequately driven it home.
This time around, less content to rely on merely voting and writing a few checks (and with time on my hands since my recent retirement from legal practice), I decided to get more personally involved in the political process. My relatively modest contributions, which included helping out with election protection hotlines, letter-writing campaigns, and a bit of canvassing, culminated in a long day spent as an Election Day poll observer.
Given the absence of excitement to be found here in solidly-blue California, I opted instead to head over to our purple neighbor, Arizona. I spent nearly 15 hours assigned to a small church within a predominantly red-leaning neighborhood, where each party had designated one individual to serve as an official observer. From watching the poll workers prepare the small room for its 6:00 a.m. opening, to watching them seal up the ballots and transport them to the county office after the polls’ 7:00 p.m. closing, I had a unique opportunity to make a few, well, observations.
1. Inside the Polling Place: My role as poll observer was pretty limited. My duties included (1) observing the voting process, from voter check-in through submission of the ballots, to ensure there were no irregularities or unwarranted limitations on voters’ ability to cast a vote; and (2) keeping an eye on the surrounding areas for any signs of voter intimidation or obstruction, or improper politicking within the immediate vicinity of the polling place. I was not to intervene with voters or poll workers, but rather to report any issues back to party headquarters for further action and, if warranted, discuss matters with the poll inspector overseeing the site.
From an official standpoint, the day was largely uneventful. The poll workers were professional and knowledgeable; the inspector who oversaw them, my primary point of contact, was gruff and unfriendly, but seemed capable and unbiased; the equipment functioned without incident. I had great respect for the dedication of the poll workers, particularly the elderly retirees who, despite extensive preventative measures, were nonetheless taking on personal risk by spending a long day indoors in the midst of a pandemic while a couple thousand people shuffled in and out of the room.
I did, unfortunately, witness questionable conduct by one poll worker, who, despite the requirement that poll workers remain strictly non-partisan, on several occasions launched into heated pro-Trump, anti-Democrat screeds in the plain view of voters. I reported this to the inspector, who seemed displeased and twice took the worker aside to speak with him.
2. Lining Up on Election Day: Nearly 200 people had lined up to vote by the time the polls opened at 6:00 a.m. Once voting began, the wait time to get in the door was about 45 minutes. However, by 9:00 a.m., when those voters not still sidelined by Covid presumably had to be at work, the line had diminished substantially, with perhaps a 20-minute wait; by afternoon, it was just a slow, steady trickle of voters. The anticipated crowds at lunchtime and after work hours never materialized.
Beyond the couple thousand voters who lined up to cast their votes, I would estimate that at least as many showed up with completed mail-in ballots in hand. (Arizona, like California, allows everyone who chooses to vote by mail.) Presumably such voters were either nervous about entrusting their ballots to the US Postal Service, or had waited until it was too late but still wanted to get their votes in. They seemed relieved to find that they could deposit their ballots in a drop-box without having to wait in line.
The slowest part of the voting process was the identification check. (Unlike California, Arizona requires all voters to provide identification.) If the voter didn’t have a driver’s license with a current address, they needed additional documentation (such as bills mailed to the new address). The number of individuals whose ID’s lacked a current address surprised me; my assumption was that many voters (in what appeared to be a predominantly working-class area) were not homeowners or were more transitory, though a friend from the area told me that Arizona requires license renewals infrequently, and thus some voters likely just had very old IDs.
Most voters had come with the necessary documentation (or could pull up electronic bills on their phones) and were able to vote; in a couple instances, voters went home and returned later with documentation. But it was easy to see how voter ID laws could disenfranchise less educated, lower-income voters, or those with language limitations, who did not come prepared and could not take the time off work (or afford the transportation) to make a second trip.
3. Fashion Statements: The precinct where I was stationed was heavily red-leaning (which I understood to be further exacerbated by the disproportionate number of Democrats who had voted by mail). The Trump supporters were often easily identified. Who knew there were so many different ways to intertwine MAGA logos, American flags, disturbingly carnivorous eagle heads, fetishistic gun imagery, and right-wing incantations (“F*ck your feelings”; “Stand for the flag, kneel for the cross”; “Defund the media”) onto a single t-shirt? Perhaps most strikingly, the Trump attire extended beyond the obvious-looking aging white guys; I saw a few young women sporting MAGA logos, and, once, a young Black man, dressed head-to-toe in Trump garb — Trump hat, Trump shirt, Trump buttons.
Meanwhile, other than a couple campaign volunteers who dropped by, I did not see a single Biden t-shirt all day. I spotted a few Biden/Harris bumper stickers in the parking lot, and plenty of voters who at least appeared more left-leaning (i.e. a few LGBT-friendly rainbow masks), but such tell-tale signs were few and far between. Was this because there were that many fewer Democratic voters? Were the Democrats less enthusiastic about their candidates? Or are Democrats by nature just lacking the in-your-face jingoism of the MAGA crowd?
And such jingoism was hardly limited to attire. A number of MAGA enthusiasts — in this case invariably white men — exited the voting booth loudly yelling “Trump!!!” in a manner that sounded far more like a taunt or a threat than a mere political proclamation. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the countless stories over the past few years where shouts of “Trump!!!” had been used to bully children of color in schools, or to taunt minority-dominated teams at high school sporting events. The Trump shout felt far more menacing, intended to convey far more than a mere political preference, than I could picture a shout of “Biden!!!” ever doing. Not that I heard any “Biden!!!” shouts.
4. Coping with Covid: Outside the polling place, signs has been posted advising voters to wear masks and practice social distancing, though I understood that poll workers could not require voters to wear masks. In contrast, poll workers and observers had to wear a mask AND a shield. The only violator I noticed was the Republican poll observer, who wore a shield without a mask, which is about as effective as a perforated condom.
I was pleasantly surprised that nearly every voter wore a mask, at least once they got inside the building (those who arrived without one were offered disposable masks by the poll workers). That said, a sizable number of people wore the mask beneath their nose, and at least in some cases it was evident that they viewed this as a symbolic act of resistance against what they believed was a requirement in order to vote. Over the course of the day, I observed maybe a half-dozen people who refused to wear a mask entirely, and without exception these appeared (from their clothing or snippets of overheard conversation) to be gung-ho Trumpers (including one anti-mask/anti-vaxxer I’ll return to shortly).
In addition to the disposable masks, a poll worker stood by the door and offered every visitor a spritz of hand-sanitizer. While most politely accepted or declined, it seemed implicit in their forceful, almost angry refusal that some viewed even this modest measure of disease prevention to represent a political concession.
5. The Crowd Outside: Beginning early in the morning, a handful of volunteers (including some local candidates) stood outside the church speaking with voters and handing out literature, as is permitted beyond the 75-foot radius of the polling station. One Democrat running for state Senate, as well as his wife, spent the entire day there (a very nice couple, with whom I spent a lot of time speaking; I was disappointed to later learn he had lost by a small margin). The remainder of the volunteers and candidates were Republicans.
By afternoon, the number of Republicans campaigning outside the church grew to about 25; some set up a tent in the parking lot, adorned in giant Trump banners and the obligatory Gadsden (“Don’t Tread On Me”) flag. Few if any of the people hanging out by the tent wore masks. All were white. (I’d say about 80% of the voters overall were white.) While my observer role included watching out for intimidation or obstruction of voters, the Trump supporters seemed well-behaved, engaging passers-by but nothing I felt was problematic.
I met a very friendly teacher from a Catholic school who had brought along some students to observe civic engagement. He said theirs was a progressive school that encouraged students to get involved in community affairs, and he expressed his concern about the state of the country, as well as the Catholic Church, in the Trump era. He seemed like one of those passionate, inspiring teachers you’d like your kids to have. Later in the day, some of his students returned with large, non-partisan Vote! signs (while sharing with me their optimism for a Biden win).
Towards the end of the day, four local college students (the only people of color I saw hanging out by the church all day) came by holding BLM signs. They mainly talked among themselves and with me; none of the voters or campaigns appeared to engage with them one way or the other.
6. Talking with Trumpers: During the day, I spoke with a number of people campaigning for Trump and other GOP candidates. All were perfectly friendly, but the conversations were… illuminating.
One young woman (maybe around 25?), who clearly did not know I was a Democrat (I could not wear any political gear, though I identified myself as a Democratic Party observer to anyone who asked), told me she had just returned from Washington, DC. She said, “I saw the stores being boarded up in case of rioting. I can’t stand what these people are doing to my country.” I didn’t ask what she meant by “these people.”
Another young woman (also looking to be around 25), upon learning I was a Democrat, asked me to give her a couple examples of why I’m a liberal; she said she’d never met one before. I told her I believed my daughter, not the government, should be able to make her own reproductive choices; I told her I had a number of gay and lesbian friends and didn’t understand why they shouldn’t have the same rights my wife and I enjoy. Upon hearing this, she asked what I meant; don’t gays have the same rights as everyone? I told her in about half the states, and under federal law, it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. She told me this is not true, and that nobody would ever be fired for their sexual orientation. She went on to say, “I know this because I used to be a lesbian, until God helped me fight my drinking problem. And I know gay people, and God loves them even if what they are doing is against the bible.” The Democratic Senate candidate came over and mentioned the US military banning gays until recently, but she insisted this was never the case.
I spoke for a while with the afore-referenced anti-masker, who was campaigning for another local GOP candidate. She looked about 50, and had a daughter (also maskless) hanging out in the Trump tent. She asked me if I really believed I needed the mask, and started quoting the sort of statistics and baseless claims you see debunked on Snopes, about masks not working and actually being dangerous, and how most supposed Covid victims actually died from other causes. She said we shouldn’t restrict businesses, or make people wear masks, because 99% of people who get Covid are just fine.
Me: I assume you consider yourself pro-life?
Her: Of course!
Me: But even if your statistics were right, we’d still have hundreds of thousands of deaths if we didn’t take steps to limit the spread. How is that pro-life?
Her: [long pause] What about Obama and H1N1?
She also told me she was a “family rights activist.” I said, “You mean, anti-vax?” She responded that she was “pro-accurate information about vaccines,” and that she should be able to decide what was right for her family; her view was that I had a right to vaccinate my children and wear a mask, and she had a right not to. I told her that vaccines aren’t effective without herd immunity; and, besides, we don’t just vaccinate to protect ourselves and our family, but the community. This drew a blank look from her, as if I had introduced a concept so far from her frame of reality that it simply did not compute.
An older woman who looked a bit like my late grandmother was handing out Trump fliers, telling everyone, “He’s a nice man. He loves people.”
At one point a man and woman handing out literature got in a lengthy discussion about their devotion to libertarianism, and how the GOP had betrayed its libertarian values (though they still supported the GOP). They complained that the government’s Covid measures were were hurting their businesses, and that there was no need for government intervention in, well, anything. The woman said, “I’d get rid of all government. Except the police. I love the police.” (As someone who had spent over 15 years as an attorney for a federal agency, I decided not to join the conversation.)
After awhile, I lost track of the number of individuals I overheard describing themselves as “Second Amendment Voters.” At least one loudly proclaimed that a Biden presidency would be “the end of our America as we know it.”
7. Two Americas: By the end of the day, the much-discussed “Two Americas” concept had really driven itself home. The Trump/GOP folks I spoke with (or just overheard) had not just a dramatically different view of the role of government, or of appropriate policies to address national problems, but of factual reality. I couldn’t figure out how to have a productive dialog with someone about policy or ideology when you can’t even agree on basic facts.
One of the bigger challenges is that many of these individuals have diligently memorized, in rote-like fashion, decontextualized statistics and snippets of (misleading) information, presumably drummed into their heads by a steady absorption of Fox or talk radio or social media. Unless one has similarly memorized the point-by-point refutation of such assertions, it’s hard not to grow exasperated, which they take to be a triumph on their part. And any effort to raise a larger policy point, or to question the authenticity of their information, is simply dismissed as outside the four corners of what can be discussed.
8. The Day After: On Wednesday morning, I grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel lobby before flying back to California. Here, too, the Two Americas had also taken hold. In the breakfast room, a number of older white men who seemed to know each other watched poll results on Fox; CNN was playing in the adjacent bar, but nobody was sitting there. Unlike most of the voters I saw the prior day, these men seemed much more well-heeled, looking like they were there for a golf tournament or an insurance convention. Clearly all Republicans, they had mixed feelings about the results at the time. They seemed excited about GOP prospects around the country, one saying that the Republicans would have done even better if Trump wasn’t “such a jerk.” (As he said to their approval, “I love his policies, I just think he’s an asshole.”) But they complained that Arizona was going blue, and blamed it on Californians moving to the state. I opted not to introduce myself.
Perhaps most intriguingly, I got some insight into how right-wing conspiracy theories get started. One issue that had arisen on Election Day was that the Sharpies supplied to voters were sometimes bleeding through the two-sided ballot. I had been told to keep an eye out for any problems, particularly if the markers were causing ballots to be rejected by the tabulation machines. I witnessed a number of voters complaining about the Sharpies; but the poll-workers patiently showed them that the ballots had been printed so that any marker bleed-through did not mark other boxes. And I watched as those ballots were properly accepted by the tabulation machines. Yet by the time I had returned home on Wednesday afternoon, there was a full-blown GOP conspiracy theory that Phoenix was targeting Trump-leaning polling places and giving them Sharpies so their votes wouldn’t count (complete with conspiratorial YouTube videos and #Sharpiegate posts on social media, including the standard Eric Trump retweet). The claim was debunked and social media clamped down on the bogus theory; a GOP lawsuit challenging the ballots was promptly dropped. But it was interesting to see how a minor issue with a basis in fact was rapidly contorted into a partisan conspiracy.
9. Moving Forward: Like many Democrats, I have mixed feelings about the 2020 election. Sitting here today, absent some unexpected development, it appears likely that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be in the White House come January, which was my paramount concern. Yet also like many Democrats, I had been cautiously optimistic that the Senate would flip, and while there may be hopes for Georgia, it is obviously a serious long-shot.
I’ll leave it for the professional pundits to decide the extent to which the election was a repudiation of Trump and Trumpism. But I can’t say I walked away from my experience filled with hope for the future. Nothing I saw or heard was unexpected, and I was spared the darker side of Trump support that has manifested itself in the days since, the armed “patriots” threatening vote counters and propagating unsupported conspiracy theories. But the divide among voters was obvious, manifested not just by different viewpoints and values, but a completely different understanding of what one might think to be objective reality.