The hidden keepers of American elections

Postcards from our Report from America corps members covering voting rights on the ground across the country.

America’s election system has come a long way since its inception in 1789. Then – and through much of the 19th century – eligible voters went to their local courthouse, swore upon a Bible to prove their identity and cast their vote aloud. 

To recall such a time, particularly against the backdrop of this year’s feckless attacks against the Postal Service and sea-sawing laws about who can vote and how, may elicit a kind of nostalgia for the simplicity of the way things once were. 

But today’s America has evolved from that America. The nation’s population is 15 times what it was in 1850 and, thanks to a century-long legacy of voting rights activism, the pool of eligible voters in 2020 is no longer just white men, and now includes women and people of color. 

As the electorate diversified and grew, America’s election system became increasingly more complicated with each passing year. Unique differences in communities from county to county mandate highly decentralized elections, yielding a dizzying array of policies and procedures, a landscape ripe for misinformation. 

But, as elections experts know, the system’s complexity is deliberate.  

“Our election system is this complicated because it has to be to protect democracy,” said Jeff Ellington, COO of one of the nation’s largest ballot printing vendors, Runbeck Election Services. “It’s what makes our election process so solid. It would be horrible to have a federal set of rules, because what comes out of Washington, D.C. may not work for California, or for Arizona, or for Iowa, because the voters are different. The community is different.” 

Each election year, an army of election workers toil in dark, musty offices and in giant warehouses to ensure this system functions and protects the nation’s democratic process. And this year, the already complicated electoral system was further muddled by a pandemic. Voting rights activists were forced to get creative in registering new voters and securing rights for the most vulnerable, while others handled the quieter, lesser-known work of getting those votes properly processed and counted. 

They are those tasked with the critical role of getting ballots printed, mailed, tabulated, audited, certified and translated into a voter’s native tongue. And from now until Election Day – which might evolve into an election month – they will be enduring 24/7 shifts among ever-changing social distancing policies. 

Many of these people have been working in elections for decades. But still, they say, nothing could have prepared them for the work they face in this history-making year.  

Jeff Ellington, Ballot Printing  

“Pushed it right up to the ragged edge” 

Jeff Ellington stands in front of United States Postal Service bins at Runbeck Elections Warehouse. (Photo by Isaiah Murtaugh/GroundTruth)

PHOENIX—Jeff Ellington is used to working on elections behind the scenes – in a giant, windowless, humidity-controlled warehouse in the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. But amid this year’s turbulent election preparation, Ellington’s work as the President and Chief Operating Officer of one of the nation’s largest ballot printing and processing facilities has suddenly been propelled into the spotlight. 

“Nobody cared that we existed nine months ago,” Ellington said. “Now, Americans really want to know how mail ballots are going to reach voters.” 

For the first time in the company’s 48-year history, Runbeck Election Services had to stop accepting new orders beginning in late July. The facility – which has had to significantly expand its capacity this year due to a pandemic-driven increase in vote-by-mail ballot orders  – prints over a million ballots and envelopes per day. On August 1st, before the election “busy season” had even begun, they surpassed the volume that they handled in all of 2016. 

“There’s nothing normal about this year. It’s unusual to have people calling, asking if we can help this close to an election,” Ellington said. “We pushed it right up to the ragged edge in terms of capacity. It’s hard as a business to turn away customers, especially when we are defending democracy.”

Even during a pandemic, polling data and early voting records suggest record turnout nationwide. And vote-by-mail is expected to double: Only 25% of votes were cast by mail in the 2016 general election versus more than half in the 2020 primaries. All this means more paper and printing than ever before in the country’s more than 200-year election history. 

Printing America’s ballots requires great precision: Runbeck serves 215 counties, printing tens of thousands of customized ballots each year, of different size, thickness and appearance. When the ballots are cut, they must fall within a few millimeters of the size of the order – which also means the facility must be controlled for humidity to account for moisture absorption – or they risk not being tabulated. 

“There’s a lot more that goes into printing a ballot that’s tabulatable than most people realize,” Ellington said. 

Runbeck Election Services warehouse in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Isaiah Murtaugh/GroundTruth)

Vote-by-mail has become a hotly polarized issue this year: Republican election officials fear that widespread rollout will pave the way for voter fraud; Democrats and vote-by-mail advocates tout the system as the obvious option to boost turnout given social distancing mandates, especially since some states have been doing it successfully for years. 

But Ellington, who has been intimately involved with ballot processing for two decades, says voter fraud at a scale that could actually swing an election is highly unlikely; to replicate and print a specific county’s ballot – its size, thickness, art and exact signature on the envelope – would, in fact, be “impossible.” 

“There was always some effort for people to try to swing the vote, even when we were raising our hands at town square to vote,” Ellington said. “Voting by mail is no more or less fraudulent prone to any other method.” 

To get the ballots processed, proofed, printed, sorted, inserted into envelopes and ready to mail with this year’s surge in orders, Ellington and his team are running the operation 24 hours a day, split up into two 12-hour shifts. 

“The days are blurring together,” he said. “It’s the same day on repeat.” 

But even with increased hours and pandemic-related factory limitations, team morale is surprisingly high. Ellington says they understand the importance of their work. 

“Without all of those pieces, you would still be showing up at the town square and raising your hand to vote,” Ellington said. “Every mail vendor, print vendor, tabulation vendor, the people who make ‘I voted’ stickers – all of those people make our democracy work.”

Megan Botel, The GroundTruth Project

Kayla Filen, County Clerk 

The fight against misinformation

STEVENS POINT, Wis.—The person tasked with running the November election in Portage County, Wisconsin gets a lot of phone calls. 

According to county clerk Kayla Filen, people call with worries about the postal service, wondering if their absentee ballots will arrive on time and inquiring about where to get a witness’s signature if they live alone and are social distancing because of the pandemic. 

But, she says, those calls are an opportunity to address one of her biggest problems this year: misinformation. 

“There’s sources out there that are trying to help, but they might get information wrong,” Filen said. “Or there’s certainly sources out there that are probably trying to spread misinformation.”

She says most of the residents she speaks to get that incorrect information from social media. 

Filen tries to counter that with press releases, interviews, website updates and those phone calls. But her job has become increasingly complicated in the era of COVID-19, especially with an upcoming general election already beset with court battles over the state’s rules over absentee voting – the method voters have increasingly turned to because of the pandemic. 

Wisconsin is set to be among the most critical swing states in the upcoming election, and it’s a hot spot of coronavirus infections, with positive cases regularly hitting over 3,000 in lead up to the election. 

The state has been a major focus of attention for both presidential candidates, as well as court challenges that keep election rules shifting. Fights over absentee ballot deadlines and other election rules have been taking place in the courts for months, with Democrats and non-partisan groups seeking changes that would make it easier to vote amid the pandemic, and Republicans resisting a mail slow down. 

One ruling even changed as an interview with Filen was taking place for this story, and she admitted that it’s been hard to keep up. 

Filen, who became county clerk last year after serving as a deputy clerk and election clerk for 3 and a half years in the city of Appleton, has some idea of what might be coming on November 2. That’s because she already experienced the chaos of the state’s spring election and presidential primary – the first election in Wisconsin since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cleaning supplies and PPE received from the state for election day. (Photo by Renee Hickman/GroundTruth)

“When it was coming up to the April election, COVID was relatively new, and we didn’t really have time to plan for it,” Filen said. 

Court rulings that established that absentee ballots could be counted right up to Election Day “certainly didn’t help,” she says. 

In April, Wisconsin clerks and postal workers found themselves overwhelmed by absentee ballots for the first time, as voters grappled with the dangers of voting in-person in the middle of a pandemic and the state, unlike many others at the time, did not postpone its spring election. A district court judge initially responded by extending the deadline for absentee ballots to be received, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling hours before Election Day.    

Meanwhile, worries over COVID-19 transmission caused poll workers to drop out in many areas of the state, with local government employees and National Guard members filling the gaps. 

Filen says that this time, she is lucky to have enough poll workers for the upcoming election, despite initial worries about having sufficient volunteers. 

“We’ve been getting a really good outpouring of support from the public,” she said. “It’s just people that really want to help. They know how important it is to make sure that people can vote on Election Day.” 

“There are certainly other counties in the state that are really hurting for people.” 

Those volunteers could be critical given the massive influx of absentee ballots already coming in, and because Wisconsin law does not allow clerk’s offices to begin counting votes until Election Day. 

Filen says the county is receiving anywhere from 50 to 100 ballots and around 20 ballot requests a day in some communities – a number she expects will only increase as Election Day draws closer. 

“That’s certainly a healthy amount of requests that we wouldn’t probably have seen in recent years,” she said. 

Still, her focus is on the fundamentals: “Just making sure that people have the information they need to make the decisions they need to make,” she said.  

Renee Hickman, Wausau Daily Herald

Mary Hall, County Auditor 

“We don’t care who wins. We care who votes.” 

TUMWATER, Wash.—As she stands in the Thurston County ballot processing center, Mary Hall appreciates the quiet.

There are no processors at their socially-distanced desks, no one meticulously reading signatures and checking ballots for stray marks or stains. The tabulation machines are turned off and locked away behind a metal barricade.

Soon, the center will be filled with dozens of workers trying to process thousands of ballots ahead of Election Day. As county auditor, Hall will oversee it all — from the moment the ballots enter the building until the results are certified 21 days after the election. 

She’s prepared, but there’s always more work to be done.

“Right now, we’re just dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s and looking at lessons learned from the primary election,” Hall said.

Washington is more than prepared for a mostly vote-by-mail election, which it has done since 2005. Every eligible voter in the state is mailed a ballot no more than 18 days before the election and has until Election Day to return them. Elections officials then have three weeks before certifying the results to allow all ballots to be counted. 

But even with decades of practice, nothing could prepare election officials for this year with statewide anticipated record turnout around 90%, nationwide concerns with vote-by-mail and potential delays with the U.S. Postal Service. Because ballots only need to be postmarked by Election Day, results in close races may come later in the week. But it won’t be a surprise when Washington goes blue for the president as it’s done almost every election in recent history, despite the vote splitting about 60-40.

Hall walks through the process in the large warehouse, following the COVID-era arrows and social distancing reminders on the floor. American flags hang in every corner, signs for “secure ballot storage” line the walls and cameras film the whole process.

The empty ballot processing center in Thurston County, Washington, will soon be filled with workers processing thousands of ballots. Due to new COVID-19 restrictions, the site can’t hold as many people as previous years, as social distancing and plexiglass barriers are now the new normal. (Photo by Laurel Demkovich/GroundTruth)

She starts at a long table near the garage door where ballots will arrive in bulky blue bags. Here, a processor will empty them and orient them so they can be read properly. 

Hall points out the large sorting machine that takes a photo of the signature and separates ballots by precinct based on a color on the envelope’s corner. On her way to the signature verification station, she checks the large padlocked cage where ballots will be stored.

Her job is to ensure confidence in voters, something engrained in her when she was first elected to county auditor in 2013 and that she says is more critical now than ever. Hall has created videos to educate voters on the path of the ballot, gives tours of the voting and processing centers and constantly reminds voters of the security of vote-by-mail.

As misinformation circulated across the country about vote-by-mail and elections have become increasingly polarized, Hall sees her job as anything but political.

“We don’t care who wins,” Hall says. “We care who votes.”

A processor will compare the signature on file to the signature on the ballot. If the ballot passes the signature check, it moves to another room where another processor opens the ballot, removes the secrecy envelope and checks for stray marks, stains, crumbs or anything else that might cause it to not be read properly.

Finally, the ballot moves to the scanner which gives results on a flash drive that is then securely tabulated, uploaded and posted on the county website beginning at 8 p.m. on Election Day. That’s just when Hall’s job begins. 

For the first time, Thurston County will live-stream the entire process. She points to the new cameras overlooking the signature verification station. 

“We’re big on transparency,” she says. 

Laurel Demkovich, The Spokesman-Review

Kaylee Carpinteyro, Election Interpreter 

Creating a democracy reflective of American diversity

READING, Penn.About a year ago, Kaylee Carpinteyro’s friend in the Berks County elections office asked her if she wanted to make some extra money working as an interpreter at the polls.

At first, she wasn’t certain. “I’m not too confident in my Spanish,” she said. The daughter of immigrants from Mexico, she grew up navigating two languages, speaking mostly English at school and Spanish at home. She was critical of her bilinguistic skills but decided to give poll interpreting a try.

Reading, a mid-sized city about an hour northwest of Philadelphia, is two-thirds Latino, while the surrounding county is generally whiter and more rural. In Berks County, more than 14,600 voting-age citizens speak primarily Spanish and speak English “less than very well,” according to Census Bureau estimates. That number is high enough to activate Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires all election materials to be available in English and Spanish in just three counties in Pennsylvania, for now: Philadelphia, Lehigh and Berks.

The fight for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes is one of the nation’s tightest races this year. In 2016, about 61% of eligible voters and 70% of registered voters turned out, narrowly delivering the state to President Donald Trump, who became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state in more than two decades. With the state’s mail-in voting system under a national political spotlight, elections staff are under pressure to ensure that every vote counts. Operatives from both major parties have described Berks County’s rural-urban divide as an emblem of the state’s political makeup. 

Sara Torres, Bilingual Coordinator for Berks County’s Office of Election Services, recently led a training for about a dozen interpreters. She explained the voting equipment, as well as the rights voters are entitled to, and emphasized that poll workers may only ask for a driver’s license if the voting rolls include a note from the Department of State requiring one.

“It’s not my problem as a citizen if you don’t know how to spell my last name,” she said. “That’s why we have interpreters, because we’re most of the time more familiar with the last names. Most of us have two last names.”

At a former training, elections staff told Carpinteyro and other interpreters that the job was simple: tell people where to stand in line and how to use the voting machine. They were preparing for Reading’s 2019 municipal election. Carpinteyro spent most of the day at the county office, thumbing through a book and scrolling on her phone. A few hours in, the staff dispatched her to an elementary school on the northwestern edge of the city. She remembers helping between five and ten people. That day, the city elected its first Latino mayor.

“One of the things that stuck out was that there were people that don’t know how to read,” she said. Other poll workers seemed experienced and were welcoming enough, but Carpinteyro felt a little intimidated as the youngest person in the room, stationed at a separate table.

This year, at 26, Carpinteyro is planning to interpret again and encouraged her friends to do the same, but a new job may prevent her from working all day on Nov. 3. This, amid a nationwide push for younger poll workers who are less at risk of complications from COVID-19. Some civic rights organizations, such as the Voter Project and the P.A. chapter of All Voting is Local, are encouraging people to sign up through online campaigns and partnerships with community groups.

For All Voting is Local PA campaign organizer Al-Sharif Nassef, it’s important to recruit poll workers who can speak multiple languages, going beyond the interpreter requirement to support voters who live outside jurisdictions where Section 203 applies or who speak languages other than Spanish. Bringing more people into the process, he says, is a chance to make the polls more inclusive, and check the subtle or not-so-subtle biases that lead to voter intimidation.

The need for new, younger poll workers, Nassef thinks, is an opportunity “to make the front line of democracy reflective of the diversity that is our democracy.”

Alanna Elder, WITF, NPR radio and PBS television stations