Late in the election cycle, there was a lot of talk about the possibility of rigged outcomes.
The counter-argument to that was how decentralized our elections system is. To rig an American election on a grand scale, you would have to corrupt local governments across the nation and maybe even co-opt the volunteer poll workers who staff the precincts.
The slow, careful grind of democracy at a local level is exactly what I saw this week when I spent a few hours watching canvassing in Kanawha County.
The Kanawha County canvassing board — made up of county commissioners Kent Carper, Dave Hardy and Hoppy Shores — was admittedly even more meticulous than it might normally have been that day.
The closest state legislative outcome on Election Day was a Kanawha County race. Only four votes separated Republican Brad White from Democrat Nancy Guthrie. The loser would stay home.
So the canvassing board went through provisional and absentee ballots in front of a crowd that included Guthrie and her lawyer, former Democratic Party chairman Pat Maroney, a representative of White’s campaign staff, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, the local media and various public officials.
This open process took hours.
If a voter originally had been ruled as “unregistered” the canvassing board double-checked by asking for calls to be placed to the Secretary of State’s office.
There was a long debate over what to do about people who had voted in the wrong precinct. Guthrie’s campaign advocated for them to be counted, especially if the precinct was still in the proper legislative district. The ACLU said those votes should count too.
Carper worried aloud that allowing people to vote in any precinct would open up a whole can of worms. He offered the possibility that some precincts would be overwhelmed and others unused.
Finally the Kanawha County prosecutor, the chief law enforcement officer for the county, was brought in and concluded the law says those out-of-precinct votes should be disallowed. That decision stood.
There were some instances of elderly voters who voted not only in the wrong precinct but the wrong town entirely. The canvassing board wondered if those voters were living in nursing homes or rehabilitation centers or rehab centers and still eventually hoped to return home. Calls were placed to try to confirm.
In one case, six provisional ballots were placed in the same envelope when they should have been in individual envelopes. The canvassers called the poll workers from that precinct, asked them to come in, swore them in and asked them what happened.
There were no hijinks, the poll workers said. There just hadn’t been any individual envelopes available. Commissioner Carper apologized for bringing them in, thanked them for their service, asked them to please serve as poll workers for the next election and sent them on their way.
If you ever worry about the gears of democracy, just take a few hours to watch an election canvass. Maybe you’ll feel better.