“Being Accosted Was Really Distracting”: What It's Like Counting US Election Ballots Right Now

As Told To Laura Bassett
·4-min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Esquire

As votes are still being counted in the 2020 presidential election, the process has become increasingly contentious. In states like Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada, protestors have descended upon vote-counting centers demanding that election workers “stop counting,” a slogan frequently used by President Trump. Here, one ballot counter in Detroit explains what the experience is like when tensions run high.

Yesterday, after working 14 hours the day before, I got up at 5:30 a.m. to begin counting absentee ballots at TCF Center in Detroit, Michigan. Normally, I work at a nonprofit, but I took took two days off from my real job to get involved with the election. I felt that I needed to do more than just cast my vote and encourage people to vote.

When I arrived, there had already been vote challengers in the room to watch over the counting. Some of the Republican ones had become agitated and antagonistic throughout the day. The challengers are allowed to look at what we’re doing and ask us questions about the process, but they have to stay six feet away and be respectful.

They weren’t all following the rules though. Some of them were approaching the table and challenging us aggressively on things they weren’t allowed to, like demanding the poll counters’ personal information or party affiliation or taking pictures as a way to intimidate us. They would swarm us and get upset when we had to duplicate a ballot, which you have to do if the original has food or water stains on it. I went through four trainings before the election on how to do that properly.

The city did a great job recruiting professional and quality people to count votes, and we were well-trained. Each ballot went through five different people before being processed. Nothing was illegitimate about this process.

It was around 3 p.m. that things started to get really hectic. Word had gotten out that President Trump wanted us to stop counting the votes. We had equal amounts of Republican and Democratic and Independent vote challengers in the room, but Republicans demanded that we allow more of their own inside. That’s when Trump’s local supporters converged on us. We later learned that there was a Facebook post saying, “Everyone come down to TCF, we’re going to demand to be let in.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Chiara Clayton
Photo credit: Courtesy of Chiara Clayton

Around mid-afternoon, we were in a meeting with our department lead getting directions on some things, and we could see a crowd of angry people forming outside and getting bigger. My table was right in front of the glass doors, so we could see everything happening outside. They started pounding on the windows, chanting, “Let us in” and “Stop the count.” I got alarmed at that point because they could have broken the glass. Some of the Republican poll challengers that were already inside the room grouped together in the corner and joined the chants, which they’re not allowed to do, and had to be escorted out.

The Detroit police were there trying to diffuse the situation. They barricaded the doors and tried to cover the windows with paper so people couldn’t see in, and they told us it was okay to keep doing our jobs. We tried to keep our heads down and focus on the work, but there was so much going on.

I felt like, I can’t believe this is happening. I’ve never in my life seen anything like that. It was jarring, and being accosted while trying to work was really distracting. We were still counting, and nothing official had even been put out yet. Why were people already so agitated?

Thankfully, there weren’t any guns there and I never felt afraid for my safety, because the police and the Department of Elections handled the situation very well. There was security in the parking lot, so we could safely walk to our cars. The crowd had mostly dispersed by midnight, but by the time I left at 4 a.m., I still saw a handful of people chanting outside. It’s just alarming to see that this is the time we’re living in, that people just get beside themselves trying to stop the democratic process.

I’m so proud of this city though. We had record voter turnout. If people want to work so hard to suppress that, that just lets you know how important it is. No one’s vote should ever be taken for granted. Every single vote matters. I made sure of it.

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