Last Tuesday, I took a seat in room 201 at the Auditorium to watch what happens after the polls close. Elections are a sacred part of the process that makes our democracy work, and I — like I assume most of us — knew little about what happens behind the scenes. My role with The Minot Voice made the experience worthwhile. And my role with #MakeMinot made the results personal.
So as I walked in a little before 7:00 p.m. and was welcomed again by the same smiling faces that greeted me when I voted earlier in the day (I would later learn that our election workers had all been there by 6:00 a.m.), I didn’t know what to expect, or what — if anything — I might write about.
That topic quickly revealed itself — the people making this process work would in some form be the focus of whatever I wrote. But it has taken a few days to distil the experience properly for publishing. So here’s what I experienced.
As the polls closed, there was a brief exhale of collective relief in the room; it was tangible. Much work was yet to be done, but the polls closing was a sign for workers that one stage was complete. Most took a moment to pause, stretch legs, and grab a quick bite to eat from a self-packed dinner.
But not long after that short moment of pause, our election workers picked up an imperceptible signal to gather for instructions so the count could begin. Because of the paper ballots, a hand count would be required. It was an extra layer of work, and after the instructions had been given, no time was lost in getting to it.
And just like that, the count was on.
Task one: tally up the poll books and count the ballots. You may not realize it, but a record is kept of each citizen who voted, and one of the first jobs was counting up the number of voters in each poll book. It’s critical for the integrity of the process that the number of ballots counted matches the number of ballots distributed. At the end of the night, everything has to equal out. If it doesn’t, the counting starts over to find the discrepancy.
It was during this time that I learned the most. I sat with Devra Smestad, the Ward County Auditor, and our chief election official. And though the City of Minot ran Tuesday’s election, Ms. Smestad was there as an assisting observer; Devra was also responsible for hiring the election workers. She explained to me the hierarchy of workers that consisted of Clerks, Judges, and an Inspector — each with a different role throughout the voting and counting process. The count was a team effort, but it was Ms. Brenda Lokken as the Inspector who was guiding the process. All in all, Tuesday’s election required fifteen workers — 10 Clerks, 4 Judges, and 1 Inspector — each put in, at least, a 16-hour day.
It was not long after the counting of ballots began that the results were clear. Though we had no idea by what percentage, a few minutes of watching over shoulders and the outcome was obvious. The proposed Home Rule Charter amendments were going to pass by a wide margin.
But that didn’t mean the night was without some drama. And I’m embarrassed to say I was a participant in it. Not long after I learned about the hierarchy of election workers, I asked about the absentee ballots, I was curious about how many people had voted early in the process administered by the City of Minot’s finance office and Ms. Cindy Hemphill.
This is the conversation that led to the fireworks, and it was a comment of Ms. Hemphill’s that lit my fuse. I wasn’t taking notes at the time so I won’t offer a direct quote, but I can speak to how her comment was perceived, and here’s how I took it: the information about absentee ballots and early voting I published on The Minot Voice was wrong.
That comment got my focused attention.
First, I take great pride in the content that goes up on The Minot Voice, and though it is occasionally marred by typos, the work that goes into delivering accurate content is significant. So when I get something wrong, it bothers me; I get angry at myself and try to figure out where I made the mistake.
Second, the source of the election information I published was the City of Minot’s website. When I explained that second point to Ms. Hemphill — that it was the City’s website that was the source of my information — I was told in plain terms that the City’s website was not a reliable source because I shouldn’t trust anything “on the Internet.”
I have no idea if anyone took a photo of the conversation, but if they had, I expect my face painted a picture of disbelief. The absurdity of the argument was difficult for me to fathom. The City of Minot’s second in command was telling me that I couldn’t trust the City’s website as a source of information about the City.
From this point, my picture of the next events is shrouded in the emotion of argument. I have no idea how long Ms. Hemphill and I went back and forth. What I know for certain is that our conversation became a distraction. Fortunately, the priority of the night was not lost on Ms. Lokken as she politely but with force brought our conversation to a halt.
That Ms. Hemphill and I might disagree is fine. I get into arguments all the time and am often on the wrong end of them. That our disagreement might impact our election workers was not fine. So to those who were working diligently to deliver results after an already long day, you have my apology.
For our part, Ms. Hemphill and I ended the night on cordial terms. And before it was all over we even managed to discover why there was a discrepancy in the information about the election. That topic, perhaps, will be the subject of some future commentary, but fortunately for the City of Minot and The Minot Voice, it seems unlikely that a bit of misinformation on the front end played any role in the lopsided outcome.
For today, I’m going to close with a tip of my hat to our election workers. Since last Tuesday, I’ve begun to think of them as the Keepers of Democracy. It’s in their hands and the integrity they bring to the election process that the first gears of government start to turn. So rest easy on our future election days Minot, if we ever run into a questionable result in one of our local contests, I’m certain it will be because of a technical glitch with one of our counting machines. But don’t worry about that either, because the Keepers of Democracy will be there to sort out that problem too.