Behind the scenes at a midterm election polling place

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Despite fears of partisan Election Day challenges, understaffing at poll places and other potential disruptions, voting across the country proceeded relatively smoothly, according to experts.

“It was a pretty boring night, and we thank you for it,” wrote Jessica Huseman, editorial director for Votebeat, a nonpartisan election news website.

Huseman had written extensively about concerns that partisan poll watchers might disrupt voting, and that election administration might run off the rails because so many election workers may have quit or stopped volunteering. But her fears went unrealized.

Tuesday’s smooth elections were due in large part to the fact that volunteers showed up, once again — as they do every election — at the more than 200,000 polling places in the U.S. where voters go to cast their ballots.

A voter arrives at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3103 polling location on November 8, 2022 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images)
A voter arrives at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3103 polling location in Fredericksburg, Va., on Tuesday. (Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

At Salem Elementary School, here in this town halfway down I-95 between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va., five volunteers showed up at 5 a.m. to set up for the 6 a.m. start to voting and did not leave until a few minutes before 9 p.m., working for two additional hours after polls closed.

Sarah Gripper, a 79-year-old retired employee with the U.S. Marshals Service, scoffed when asked if she’d had any second thoughts about showing up to work the polls.

She noted, with a chuckle, that she is a substitute teacher at the local middle school, and so she was unfazed by the thought of troublemaking poll watchers. “I’m going to work tomorrow,” Gripper said.

Gripper sat all day at a long folding table inside Salem Elementary’s gym with Esther White, an 81-year-old retired federal employee, checking in voters on two electronic tablets. They made sure each voter was registered and supposed to vote at the school that day before handing them a ballot and sending them to a privacy booth to register their choice in secret.

Voters in Fredericksburg were choosing between Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic incumbent, and her Republican challenger, Yesli Vega. (Virginia holds its statewide and local elections in odd-numbered years.)

Another volunteer guided voters through the scanning process, directing them how to insert ballots into an electronic scanner. With relatively short lines, most voters were in and out in two to three minutes.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger celebrates with supporters after winning reelection on Nov. 8.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger celebrates with supporters after winning reelection on Tuesday. (Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

There were a decent number of voters whose polling location had shifted, due to redistricting that occurs every 10 years following the release of the latest U.S. census. Some of these voters who turned up only to discover they were at the wrong polling place expressed irritation, but most took it in stride.

Shelton Mackey, the polling place supervisor, was an old hand at this. He has been working at this location for about 20 years, he told Yahoo News, and had learned from experience how to make the process go as smoothly as possible. There was an art, he explained, to setting up the physical space so that voters easily moved from check-in to voting to scanning, and then back out again.

Mackey, another former federal employee who recently retired — and a former U.S. Marine who served for 20 years — stood in front of the check-in table and stressed the count he was most focused on keeping accurate.

“The most important number to me is the number of checked-in voters compared to numbers of votes,” he said.

Mackey and the volunteers took numerous steps to prevent errors. Blank ballots had been delivered to the school the day before the election by the county Board of Elections, shrink-wrapped in allotments of 100 that were kept inside brown banker's boxes and stored inside a locked cage that also held the voting scanner and the privacy booths, which required some assembly.

Shelton Mackey, kneeling, polling place supervisor at Salem Elementary School, removed the 863 votes registered there on Nov. 8 from a collection bin for safe storage. Mackey called in the results 10 minutes after polls closed, and only then did he and two other volunteers remove the ballots from a locked bin and place them in a box so they could be stored at the county Board of Elections.
Shelton Mackey, kneeling, polling place supervisor at Salem Elementary School in Fredericksburg, Va., removes the votes registered there on Tuesday from a collection bin for safe storage. (Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

Mackey had picked up a key for the cage the day before, and he and his team double-counted each batch of 100 ballots that they opened, he said. They started the day with 2,100 blank ballots. Mackey knew there were 2,840 voters registered to cast ballots at this polling place, but he did not know how many had voted early, either in person or by mail.

But he was also quite aware of how easily many people are taken in by partisan charges of fraud and cheating, accusations for which proof — or an understanding of how ballots are organized, stored, tracked and kept safe — is often lacking.

“If we were going to do something nefarious, five people would have to be in concurrence,” Mackey said. “And I know from working with our team we are of different political beliefs.”

When the ballots and the voting scanner were taken out of the metal cage, the scanner had a receipt with its serial number, which also showed how many votes had ever been counted in the lifetime of that machine. The “public count” for that Election Day is then set to zero.

A second receipt would be printed out at the end of the day with the vote totals, as part of an exhaustive documentation process involving multiple envelopes and forms, all observed and signed by all five volunteers.

A voter prepares to cast his ballot during the midterm elections at a polling station in Arlington, Va.
A voter prepares to cast his ballot during the midterm elections at a polling station in Arlington, Va. (Liu Jie/Xinhua via Getty Images) (Xinhua News Agency via Getty Ima)

If outsiders wanted to corrupt the vote count, voter impersonation would be the main method to conduct any such attempt. If someone knew that a relative, neighbor or friend had recently died or moved, or if someone were tracking those life events through a database, they could potentially show up and claim to be that person to vote their ballot. But Virginia requires either a photo ID or two forms of nonphoto ID to vote.

Voter impersonation has been shown to be very rare. One study turned up just 31 credible examples of voters who impersonated another person over 14 years in the entire country. Another study between 2000 and 2012 found 10 cases of voter impersonation nationally. Even a database of fraud cases compiled by the conservative Heritage Foundation found only 80 nationwide cases of double voting over the course of the past several decades.

One of the biggest reasons for the scarcity of such incidents is that the coordination required to orchestrate any kind of large-scale voter impersonation effort would involve many individuals, at an exceedingly high level of sophistication, having to fool hundreds of volunteers like the ones at Salem Elementary.

As the poll closing time of 7 p.m. approached on Tuesday, Mackey walked to the door twice, at 6:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m., to shout into the gathering darkness outside that voting would end shortly. At 7 p.m. sharp, he again walked to the door and said in a loud voice, “The polls are now closed.”

The five volunteers were far from done, however.

Within a few minutes, Mackey fed a preprinted sheet of paper from the county into the vote scanner, initiating the process for the machine to shut down and stop tabulating votes. It spit out a new receipt with the vote totals: 484 for Vega, the Republican, and 376 for Spanberger, the Democrat.

Shelton Mackey, standing, leads the documentation process after the polls closed for the 863 votes registered there on Nov. 8.
Mackey, standing, leads the documentation process after the polls closed for the 863 votes registered there on Tuesday. (Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

At 7:10 p.m. Mackey, receipt in hand, pulled out his cellphone and called the county Board of Elections. “Yes, hi, this is Shelton, 301,” he said, referencing the identification number of the polling place. “You ready for numbers?”

He read them out as the person on the other end of the line asked for the Democratic totals, the Republican totals, the number of write-ins, the total number of votes, the number of voters who did not have ID, and the number of voters who showed up to register that day.

There were no voters at Salem Elementary on Tuesday without ID, and 10 who registered that day. Three write-in votes were recorded, one for “I don’t support either candidate,” another reading “Both suck” and a third entry that was illegible.

Polling place 301 was now committed to those numbers, and any subsequent changes would have to be carefully explained and documented.

After Mackey hung up, he took out a pocketknife and cut open a plastic seal on the scanner that housed a thumb drive holding a digital copy of the vote totals. He placed the thumb drive in an envelope, set that aside and placed a new plastic seal on the compartment.

He then placed the scanner in a protective case and put it back in the metal cage. Around 7:40 p.m., he helped Gripper and White ensure that their tablets were shut down and stored, and then Mackey and two other volunteers opened the bin and spent several minutes stacking the completed ballots — known as executed ballots — in an empty brown banker's box separate from the box with blank ballots.

Voters cast their ballots at a polling location inside the Walter Reed Recreation Center on Nov. 8 in Arlington, Va.
Voters cast their ballots at a polling location inside the Walter Reed Recreation Center in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

There were 23 loose blank ballots, which were counted and placed with the shrink-wrapped blank ballots, to be returned to the county.

An hour after polls closed, the five volunteers assembled around a table and watched Mackey sort through all the paperwork needed to document their work. “It’s worse than going to a closing,” he joked, comparing the process to signing the documents needed to buy a home.

As the process was wrapping up, exhaustion set in and the volunteers yawned, rubbed their eyes and pulled out their smartphones for the first time in a while that day. They each signed the multiple forms that Mackey presented them with.

“We were doing a final audit inventory of ensuring that the ballots cast have been properly accounted for, inventoried and properly stored, so we can return them for safe storage by the county, in case there’s a question,” Mackey said a few minutes later. “In my opinion, we’re ensuring the continued integrity of the election because we’ve gone through and accounted for ballots cast and the process we used to keep up with all of that.”

People walk into the early voting location at the Stafford County Government Center on Nov. 3 in Stafford, Va.
People walk into ab early voting location at the Stafford County Government Center in Stafford, Va., on Nov. 3. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

For conspiracy theorists, the mundane reality of the hard work Mackey and his crew did that day doesn’t deliver the same entertainment value as a wild rumor about how their candidate might have been cheated. The truth, however, is far less exciting.

At 8:45 p.m., Mackey and the others packed up and walked as a group out of the gym, nearly 16 hours after they’d arrived. Mackey took the box of voted ballots to his car, on his way to drop them off at the county Board of Elections. It was fully dark now, and cold.

Why do all this? he was asked.

“I enjoy it, and I think our elections are important to the American democratic process. If we can’t show that we have integrity in how we select our leaders, then we’re just a kangaroo court somewhere, you know?” he said with a grin. “And that’s why we do it. And quite honestly, I enjoy it. I enjoy the engagement with people, and I ensure they have the opportunity to vote if they are authorized to vote.”