Back in the ’90s, I spent a few election cycles volunteering as a poll worker in Virginia. That doesn’t make me an expert, by any means (I’m sure some procedures have changed since then), but it did give me some perspective.
The first time I did it, it was for a first-person newspaper story. When told I had to represent one party or the other, I asked my editors how I could balance that with journalistic objectivity.
“Flip a coin,” I was told.
I did, and it made me a Republican. I enjoyed the experience so much that I came back on my own for the next two years.
Poll workers were (and, I assume, still are) volunteers. That means they don’t get paid and even have to bring their own lunches. They work 15-hour days, arriving at the polls before dawn to help set things up and remaining until close to 8 at night, when the tallying is finally done. We dealt with each voter on a face-to-face basis and made sure their ID information checked out before they were sent to a voting booth to earn one of those little stickers. Over three years, I can count any discrepancies on the fingers of one hand, none of them stemming from any sinister motives. No one ever offered to bribe me.
I remember one person who insisted on voting for a state legislator who had been redistricted away and no longer represented him.
“Why can’t I vote for him?” the voter argued. “What difference does it make where I live?”
“Do you think you should be able to vote for the president of France?” the poll captain — who was having a long day — asked him.
It surprised me that so many people didn’t seem to grasp an obvious fact during the most recent presidential election, a phenomenon I saw occur every year in Virginia. The western and southern parts of that state are mostly rural, so those votes came quickly. Why? Because there simply weren’t that many votes to count there, and most of them were usually Republican.
It was a different story in Northern Virginia and the Tidewater area. The populous DC suburbs and cities like Hampton and Virginia Beach had three times as many voters. Because they were more diverse, with large numbers of black and Hispanic voters, these places tended to skew Democratic, although certainly not exclusively.
Year after year, the Republican candidates running for statewide offices piled up large leads early, but they had to withstand a barrage of late votes from the urban areas. Sometimes those leads still held up, sometimes they didn’t, but that’s one reason so many Biden votes came in late in many places. Of course, this time around, the enormous numbers of absentee ballots due to COVID-19 fears complicated things. In my poll-watching days, almost all absentee ballots came from military personnel or displaced college students.
I suppose Donald Trump is right in that it would be more likely for a few votes to be “rigged” if those voters weren’t checked out personally by poll workers. Still, the idea that mass fraud could be committed through some organized plot seems far-fetched, to say the least. And why didn’t Trump think cheating might have occurred in the states he won?
Of course, who can forget Trump’s claim that his popular vote deficit in 2016 was due to “illegal voters, all of whom voted for Hillary.” Everyone, apparently. Did anyone actually believe that?
If nothing else, I hope the fiasco that the 2020 presidential election became will inspire some changes going forward. I have no sympathy with Republicans who insist, “If the Electoral College goes away, you’ll never see another Republican elected.” Maybe they need to work a little harder in the areas where they’re not as strong. Perhaps the losers in future elections shouldn’t be able to count on friendly state legislators in some last-ditch scenario.
And anyway, what difference should it make where someone lives during a presidential election? Doesn’t the president represent everybody? One of my biggest problems with the Electoral College is that if you’re a “blue” voter in most predominantly “red” states, or vice-versa, you might as well not even get out of bed on Election Day. Yet there are more than a few liberal Democrats in Alabama and plenty of conservative Republicans in New York and California, so why should they be penalized for their address?
States don’t do it that way. Citing Virginia again, there is no effort to make sure voters in the most rural counties match up with those in the DC suburbs. The chips — and votes — fall where they may.
If lawmakers can’t pull the trigger on retiring the Electoral College, the least they could do would be to make the results proportional in every state. If you win 60 percent of the popular vote, you get 60 percent of the Electoral College votes. Simple.
So maybe the good people in places like New Hampshire and Wyoming wouldn’t get as many visits from presidential candidates during election years. They’d learn to get over it.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."