In summary

CalMatters talked to volunteer poll workers and full-time staff in the aftermath of November’s contentious election to see how their work differed from past elections. Election staff Tiffany Nevarez, Enedina Chhim and Roxana Castro say they enjoyed problem-solving their way past this year’s hurdles in Orange County.

When it comes to voting, you could call Tiffany Nevarez a late bloomer. The 40-year-old voted for the first time three years ago. But since then she’s made up for it by working during elections, too.

Nevarez, a voter registration specialist for Orange County, teamed with Enedina Chhim and Roxana Castro to problem solve their way through pandemic, misinformation, and physical hurdles that started during the March primary and continued through the general election last month.

“I’m part of one of the biggest elections. And, I mean, what other election can you say is during a pandemic?” Nevarez said. “Not many people can say that.”

Election work always has been tough, with long hours and weekend shifts. Nevarez, Chhim and Castro faced additional stress this fall from anxious voters concerned about the integrity of the election given rampant rumors and misinformation. They said they managed through it by watching each other’s back and reveling in the innovation tied to this year’s primary and general election.

Tiffany Nevarez, a voter registration specialist, at the Orange County registrar of voters’ office.

“During the election, this is our second family,” Nevarez said. “So you do become very close. We take care of each other.”

Chhim, 35, a community program specialist, said she leans on the team for support.

“It wasn’t until I… saw what was happening behind the scenes that I really realized, wow, there’s so many dedicated people, there was so much attention to detail. There was really very little room for error,” she said.

Chhim isn’t one to be intimidated by problems that might seem insurmountable. She said she remembers staring out into the expansiveness of the Honda Center parking lot during the fall and wondering: How would they turn it into the super vote center they needed? It didn’t have electricity.

“Again, here we go with the creative thinking, right? How are we going to get electricity out there? How are we going to ensure that it’s dependable?” she said. 

So the team partnered with the Public Works department to borrow some hefty generators. The mega site, which had in-person and drive-through voting, was used by almost 3,500 voters, the most of any center in the county, all with no electricity problems.

Castro, 36, also a community program specialist, works across from Chhim. She, too, is used to the unexpected.

In March, in Santa Ana, what was to be a vote center flooded five days before early voting was to begin. The center was in a dense, largely Spanish-speaking district.

Roxana Castro, community program specialist, at Orange County registrar of voters’ Vote Center Lab during the 2020 general election.

“Those kinds of last minute changes can impact the community, but you really have to work together as a team to quickly identify something that can still support voters,” Castro said.

In the end, she booked rooms inside a nearby church, switching them every other day for voters because of scheduled church activities.

“So we made it work.”

Voter anxiety was an ongoing challenge this fall. Voters called in with questions: “‘Is my vote gonna count, are the ballot dropboxes secure?’” Chhim recalled. “There were so many questions that became kind of common questions, depending… on what was on the news.”

Election staff discovered even their family and friends were “caught up in the misinformation bubble,” Castro said.

“It provided me an opportunity to explain the process,” Castro added.

They couldn’t reassure every skeptic, but Chhim said she prefers voters call them than seek the facts elsewhere.

“I think at the end of every one of those calls, they came away with a little bit of a better understanding as to what it is our process looks like,” she said.

In fact, Nevarez said they, too, were constantly on the lookout for fraud, and invited voters to observe the process with their own eyes or computer screens.

“Watch and observe. Please look. Watch what we’re doing,” Nevarez said.

Anyone observing the process would have found workers who comb through election plans with detail.

“I mean, we even plan out how many pens, how many ‘I Voted’ stickers we send out to each location,” Castro said. “It’s not a random number, it’s based on data.”

Enedina Chhim, right, is with Anaheim Ducks’ mascot Wild Wing during the 2020 general election at Orange County’s Honda Center, which served as a vote center.

Nevarez said they work hours away from their families because “we feel that it’s important and we want it to be accurate.” The job is about service to the community, the women said, and being able to do something different each day.

One day, the job might include revising vote center plans or testing new tools like the Remote Access Ballot to allow voters to download and print ballots from home. Another day it might be training someone via Zoom or coordinating curbside voting plans with disability advocates. The next day might include warehouse visits. Or they might spend it convincing land owners to host drop boxes.

“There are times when it’s super exciting that you’re being part of something so historic,” Nevarez said. “There’s just so much new with us.”

Chhim said she enjoys seeing “how processes can be improved. And really that dedication to innovation that I think I also really appreciated.”

“Even with the misinformation and the political climate, I’m still motivated for the next election. The energy hasn’t stopped,” Castro said. “And I think it just reassures how exciting our line of work is.”

This story was updated to clarify that the three women are part of the election staff, and not poll workers.

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post, and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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Michael Lozano leads CalMatters’ Youth Journalism Initiative assessing the state of California’s journalism education and industry pipeline. He previously covered election administration for CalMatters...