What It Was Like to Be a Republican Poll-Watcher in New York

Call it civic duty.  Call it curiosity about the other side of the process.  Call it profound commitment in getting insight into knowing who won.

Whatever you call it, I was on the other side of the election procedures I'd been teaching for about a decade.  I'd always cautioned students in the election law classes to beware of poll-watchers, since they are not "part of the election team."

They are to be accorded courtesy. They are not to be given privileges when the election staffers at the tables, scanners, BMDs (Ballot Marking Device — essentially a large metal device that functioned as a giant pencil, amplifying type, changing the color of background so voters could more easily vote, or doing a variety of tasks that can be utilized by the visually impaired or the physically challenged.  These devices have a variety of accessories, too, for the quadriplegics or those with breathing difficulties.  But for all that, it's still a big marker device, not a scanner), and privacy booths are otherwise busy with voters.  They are people who come, usually, from one party's HQ, or they come from a candidate.  There are accordingly rules for poll-watchers prominently posted in all official polling sites.

But this time, I knew that poll-watchers were needed, and I decided to join their ranks for the first time.

The room where tables and absentee vote ballots were being opened and screened was vast — by rough estimate, 3,000 or 4,000 square feet.  All separating room dividers usually in use during the rest of the year were down, and conjugal tables, each about 6 ft long and 3 ft deep, were juxtaposed against another identical table, with two seats for a bipartisan pair of readers on one side and, usually, one or two chairs for a poll-observer or watcher on the other.

I signed in, as is usual, but noted not another person who was an observer of the ballots as they came out of the double-envelopes.

As a Republican, I was valuable and rare, since NYC has a plethora of Democrats, about eight to one by most assessments.  But not seeing another poll-watcher at any of the tables, I "sampled" four different pairs of counters, finding their techniques individual and different.  All pairs were friendly and quite amiable with me, happy to answer my questions and to hold up the ballots across the depth of the table so I could more easily see the two sides of the ballots they were showing.

After about an hour, a woman came over to me, introduced herself, and told me I had to stay at a fifth table and not sample techniques anymore.  She told me to watch out for a certain race, a certain candidate.  She was less than completely friendly, seemingly annoyed that I had proactively chosen to sit at several otherwise untenanted poll-watcher seats before she had found me and assigned me to the ED/AD she wanted watched.  Election District, Assembly District is abbreviated ED/AD, and each segment of the city has a myriad of these, like stores in a mall.

I was assigned to the 76th A.D.  All right.

I scrutinized each ballot the two demonstrator counters held up for me, a distance of probably 4 feet or so.  I watched both sides, although the judges on one side of the ballot were unopposed, so it didn't much matter whether they got votes or not.

The key side was the presidential and down-ballot races.

Each of the fill-in ovals is about 2 to 4 centimeters.  Many ballots had fill-ins for the Dem side, but though there were very few fills for the president.  I did note about one in 30 or so.  Some ballots, too, had just the top slate filled — people voting only for the presidential race.

Occasionally, a ballot would come up that had cross-votes — Biden for president, but the rest of the races were filled in the GOP column.  That spoke loudly of annoyance with this president, obviously.  This is, after all, New York, a blue of blue cities.

Soon, a tall, thin guy from the back of the vast room came to me and ordered me not to touch the table at which I was seated.  I mildly replied that my hands were folded above the table.  He walked away, irked.

Another hour, another fellow came to me and told me to move back "behind the line," so I was now 6 to 8 feet away, rather than the 4 feet that afforded me easy visualization of the quickly displayed ballots by each of the counters.

At one point, when both women went for a bio break, I was asked if I'd like to see the envelopes opened.  I didn't quite understand what that meant, since I'd been watching the counters all morning, first opening the double-envelopes, then extracting the folded ballots.

When I went to the back of the room, a whizz-bang high-tech slicer greeted me, a shiny metal contraption that took a hundred sealed envelopes.  With the operator's gloved hand holding the envelopes in close to the metal backing, the slicer zipped open the whole hundred or so in seconds.  It was like those dollar-counters you see in documentaries about the Mint, is the closest analogy.

Back at the two tables for the 76th A.D., we recommenced to them holding up a ballot, two seconds or so, in turn, me looking for marks, double-votes, stray marks, coffee stains, or anything untoward.

When a ballot had any of those "errors," a runner was hailed, the ballot was foldered, and he ran the folder back to the rear, where someone copied exactly the votes onto a clean ballot, so it could go through the scanners that evening without random marks or scribbles or signatures or anything other than the oval filled in.  One ballot had big Xes instead of bubbling in the ovals.  That went to the runner.  When these came back, they were scrutinized and compared, so no new candidates were marked, and the "cured" ballot was exactly the same as its forebear, except "clean."

As the day wore on, I was ordered not to take phone calls.  (I had a call from a physician about my sister, who is ill.  I had a 10-second conversation, then hung up.)  I was watched critically.

At one point, someone at a nearby table laughingly opined: hey, looks like everyone here is excited."  I asked why.  "They all think there won't be any poll-watchers tomorrow."

Lunch break was an hour, and if you came back before the appointed time, security guards did not let you in.  "The public is not allowed in until ten after the hour."

We also had to depart the premises before any of the counting staffers could leave, "for the security of the ballots."  Not sure I liked being told in cool terms that I was "the public."

The bathroom was what amounted to two city blocks away from the counting room.  If you had an emergency, forget it.

There was no food for anyone.  I had grown used to the early voting days, where neighbors had supplied us with pizza, empanadas, Shake Shack burgers, cookies, hot chocolate, and candy bars pretty much every day.

Here, though, no food.  A water cooler in one corner of the room, with no cups.

At one point, a woman from the rear came to our table and said not to answer any questions from me.  If I had a question, she said, I could go to the back and find her.  She never gave her name.  Or where in the "back" she could be found.

On lunch and supper breaks, you had to get an elevator down the hall, farther away than the bathroom, and leave the building — in the cold downpour — for any neighborhood grocery or store.  I chose not to get wet and bought a Cadillac peppermint mocha for more than a week's salary.  There was nowhere to sit, as all benches and seats had been removed from the lobby.  A halal cart sold me a raisin bagel for one dollar.  Yay.

After one day of orders barked and being called, with ill disguised disdain, "the public," I decided enough was too much.  Even though I wanted to assist and also make sure things were kosher in this operation of millions of ballots, some military mixed in with residents of NYC, I had had my fill of being disregarded, ordered, told off, reminded of things never told to me in the first place.

The counters could exult at my absence the next day.  I couldn't in good conscience put myself through another day or more of this prison-like rigmarole.

What's up, Doc?  They forgot to say "thank you" for all the eyestrain.

Call it civic duty.  Call it curiosity about the other side of the process.  Call it profound commitment in getting insight into knowing who won.

Whatever you call it, I was on the other side of the election procedures I'd been teaching for about a decade.  I'd always cautioned students in the election law classes to beware of poll-watchers, since they are not "part of the election team."

They are to be accorded courtesy. They are not to be given privileges when the election staffers at the tables, scanners, BMDs (Ballot Marking Device — essentially a large metal device that functioned as a giant pencil, amplifying type, changing the color of background so voters could more easily vote, or doing a variety of tasks that can be utilized by the visually impaired or the physically challenged.  These devices have a variety of accessories, too, for the quadriplegics or those with breathing difficulties.  But for all that, it's still a big marker device, not a scanner), and privacy booths are otherwise busy with voters.  They are people who come, usually, from one party's HQ, or they come from a candidate.  There are accordingly rules for poll-watchers prominently posted in all official polling sites.

But this time, I knew that poll-watchers were needed, and I decided to join their ranks for the first time.

The room where tables and absentee vote ballots were being opened and screened was vast — by rough estimate, 3,000 or 4,000 square feet.  All separating room dividers usually in use during the rest of the year were down, and conjugal tables, each about 6 ft long and 3 ft deep, were juxtaposed against another identical table, with two seats for a bipartisan pair of readers on one side and, usually, one or two chairs for a poll-observer or watcher on the other.

I signed in, as is usual, but noted not another person who was an observer of the ballots as they came out of the double-envelopes.

As a Republican, I was valuable and rare, since NYC has a plethora of Democrats, about eight to one by most assessments.  But not seeing another poll-watcher at any of the tables, I "sampled" four different pairs of counters, finding their techniques individual and different.  All pairs were friendly and quite amiable with me, happy to answer my questions and to hold up the ballots across the depth of the table so I could more easily see the two sides of the ballots they were showing.

After about an hour, a woman came over to me, introduced herself, and told me I had to stay at a fifth table and not sample techniques anymore.  She told me to watch out for a certain race, a certain candidate.  She was less than completely friendly, seemingly annoyed that I had proactively chosen to sit at several otherwise untenanted poll-watcher seats before she had found me and assigned me to the ED/AD she wanted watched.  Election District, Assembly District is abbreviated ED/AD, and each segment of the city has a myriad of these, like stores in a mall.

I was assigned to the 76th A.D.  All right.

I scrutinized each ballot the two demonstrator counters held up for me, a distance of probably 4 feet or so.  I watched both sides, although the judges on one side of the ballot were unopposed, so it didn't much matter whether they got votes or not.

The key side was the presidential and down-ballot races.

Each of the fill-in ovals is about 2 to 4 centimeters.  Many ballots had fill-ins for the Dem side, but though there were very few fills for the president.  I did note about one in 30 or so.  Some ballots, too, had just the top slate filled — people voting only for the presidential race.

Occasionally, a ballot would come up that had cross-votes — Biden for president, but the rest of the races were filled in the GOP column.  That spoke loudly of annoyance with this president, obviously.  This is, after all, New York, a blue of blue cities.

Soon, a tall, thin guy from the back of the vast room came to me and ordered me not to touch the table at which I was seated.  I mildly replied that my hands were folded above the table.  He walked away, irked.

Another hour, another fellow came to me and told me to move back "behind the line," so I was now 6 to 8 feet away, rather than the 4 feet that afforded me easy visualization of the quickly displayed ballots by each of the counters.

At one point, when both women went for a bio break, I was asked if I'd like to see the envelopes opened.  I didn't quite understand what that meant, since I'd been watching the counters all morning, first opening the double-envelopes, then extracting the folded ballots.

When I went to the back of the room, a whizz-bang high-tech slicer greeted me, a shiny metal contraption that took a hundred sealed envelopes.  With the operator's gloved hand holding the envelopes in close to the metal backing, the slicer zipped open the whole hundred or so in seconds.  It was like those dollar-counters you see in documentaries about the Mint, is the closest analogy.

Back at the two tables for the 76th A.D., we recommenced to them holding up a ballot, two seconds or so, in turn, me looking for marks, double-votes, stray marks, coffee stains, or anything untoward.

When a ballot had any of those "errors," a runner was hailed, the ballot was foldered, and he ran the folder back to the rear, where someone copied exactly the votes onto a clean ballot, so it could go through the scanners that evening without random marks or scribbles or signatures or anything other than the oval filled in.  One ballot had big Xes instead of bubbling in the ovals.  That went to the runner.  When these came back, they were scrutinized and compared, so no new candidates were marked, and the "cured" ballot was exactly the same as its forebear, except "clean."

As the day wore on, I was ordered not to take phone calls.  (I had a call from a physician about my sister, who is ill.  I had a 10-second conversation, then hung up.)  I was watched critically.

At one point, someone at a nearby table laughingly opined: hey, looks like everyone here is excited."  I asked why.  "They all think there won't be any poll-watchers tomorrow."

Lunch break was an hour, and if you came back before the appointed time, security guards did not let you in.  "The public is not allowed in until ten after the hour."

We also had to depart the premises before any of the counting staffers could leave, "for the security of the ballots."  Not sure I liked being told in cool terms that I was "the public."

The bathroom was what amounted to two city blocks away from the counting room.  If you had an emergency, forget it.

There was no food for anyone.  I had grown used to the early voting days, where neighbors had supplied us with pizza, empanadas, Shake Shack burgers, cookies, hot chocolate, and candy bars pretty much every day.

Here, though, no food.  A water cooler in one corner of the room, with no cups.

At one point, a woman from the rear came to our table and said not to answer any questions from me.  If I had a question, she said, I could go to the back and find her.  She never gave her name.  Or where in the "back" she could be found.

On lunch and supper breaks, you had to get an elevator down the hall, farther away than the bathroom, and leave the building — in the cold downpour — for any neighborhood grocery or store.  I chose not to get wet and bought a Cadillac peppermint mocha for more than a week's salary.  There was nowhere to sit, as all benches and seats had been removed from the lobby.  A halal cart sold me a raisin bagel for one dollar.  Yay.

After one day of orders barked and being called, with ill disguised disdain, "the public," I decided enough was too much.  Even though I wanted to assist and also make sure things were kosher in this operation of millions of ballots, some military mixed in with residents of NYC, I had had my fill of being disregarded, ordered, told off, reminded of things never told to me in the first place.

The counters could exult at my absence the next day.  I couldn't in good conscience put myself through another day or more of this prison-like rigmarole.

What's up, Doc?  They forgot to say "thank you" for all the eyestrain.